A recent article on performance reviews starts by noting that few organizational practices are as old, or have been hated as long, as the performance review. The article provides a good summary of the problems, and I will add that in my thirty-some years of consulting with managers—not to mention my own managerial experience—I can’t say who dislikes them more, the boss or the employee. Of course, there are antidotes to some of the difficulties, and the primary issue is finding the right type of performance appraisal for the situation. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all performance appraisal system. (Contact me if you wish to chat about yours.)
Here are some ideas about performance appraisals, evaluation, and the common defense mechanism known as “projection.” You may have heard about projection and may even be familiar with the process, its potential consequences, and when it’s likely to happen in your case. If so, great! If not or if you (like me) often forget you might be projecting when evaluating another, at least one psychologist would say you and I aren’t fully awake. That’s quite the indictment.
Projection occurs when we attribute our own attitudes, feelings, or desires to others. Psychologists say projection is an unconscious defense mechanism that happens when we are uncomfortable with some part of ourselves and we “project” it onto others. If there is something we don’t like about ourselves, we judge others on that attribute as a way to sort of “defend” who we are. So, for example, if we judge someone else as lazy, it may be that deep down we know we have a tendency to slack off. Or if we evaluate someone as an “apple polisher,” that might be the result of our (sometimes unconscious) desire to get in good with the boss.
A good way to test whether or not you do any projecting is to think of someone you don’t like, ask yourself what about him or her you find negative, and then consider whether you have that trait or tendency in you. If the answer is yes, then it may be a case of projection. Here are two examples of mine: I used to judge my step-son for using his cleverness to avoid doing hard work. In another case of projection, I would judge a faculty member at the university where I taught for being too practical and not sufficiently “intellectual” or “academic.” While instances of projection can never be undeniably proven, it is commonly accepted in social science that it is going on constantly.
You can probably see how this fits into a performance appraisal. As the article says, “Studies suggest that more than half of a given performance rating has to do with the traits of the person conducting the evaluation, not of the person being rated.”
And beyond the performance appraisal—looking at “judgment” more broadly—humans just seem predisposed to negative evaluations and judgment in interpersonal dealings. Much of it is projection. Some project less than others. Some are at least more aware of it than others.
Here are a few more important things to realize: first, just because you’re projecting, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong! Maybe that person is indeed being lazy. Or perhaps that other person is trying to cozy up to his boss, after all. Second, if we can catch ourselves when we are judging others, it becomes an opportunity for self-insight. When we evaluate negatively, this is a tip-off about a potential “shadow” side of ourselves we haven’t yet fully admitted or come to accept or understand. Maybe it’s me who tends to [fill in your own negative attribute here]. Finally, one of the great things about projection is it means there is a good chance people negatively evaluating you may be simply projecting. In other words, their evaluation is more about them than you.
If you’re interested in reading more about performance appraisals, I predict you’ll like the article “The Push Against Performance Reviews.”