Why being objective is hard and how it affects your decision-making

People whose work involve managing other people, evaluating their work, or somehow passing judgment about other people, know that soft skills, attributes, and people’s behaviors in general are hard to gauge objectively.

Being objective is hard. While we have some experience managing the tension between emotional and rational arguments –we are rarely detached from the situation at hand– more often than we think we judge and make decisions based on our intuitions and affected by our biases1. We like to believe that we are always rational, but we really should know better. Most often than not, we unconsciously backwards-rationalize our not-so-rational decisions2.

For example, consider a concept like executive presence. Jenna Goudreau writes in Forbes that, according to a 2012 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, feedback on executive presence is often contradictory and confusing. However, the same study finds that executive presence counts for 26% of what it takes to be promoted. Executive presence certainly can be a factor for a promotion, but only if we understand what it entails as an evaluation criteria.

Another example is when we let our perception of someone or a situation get affected by circumstantial comments or facts. It takes consistent results and effort over a long period of time for an employee to gain his or her bosses’ trust3. Making echo of some anecdotal negative incident about that employee can unjustly hinder or destroy his or her reputation in no time.

What can we do? One solution is to acquire habits that help us step over our biases and separate perceptions from concrete and factual information; distinguish anecdotal gossip from consistent behaviors… to the point that it becomes second nature to us, an almost unconscious way of thinking and reasoning. That is, it becomes part of your identity.

Acquiring this kind of habits can be hard. But it can be done. Four things you can try:

Always be specific when expressing your opinion about other people or situations

Nobody is a complete mess or totally a star. Be clear and concise when presenting the information. Be polite, but firm when refuting. Listen, and recognize when you are wrong.

For example, if a colleague says about someone that he always arrives late, you could ask how many times in the last three months? to verify if it is a fact or just a perception. To an opinion that someone cannot be considered for a position because she lacks executive presence, you could ask what would be the three most important things that person would need to work on in order to be ready for promotion in the next six months.

Make no negative comments about anyone

If you need to refer to anything negative, refer to the facts and not the person. And do it as you would if the person responsible was sitting in front of you.

Ask a colleague to help you by pointing out each time you fail4 at this.

Learn to be discrete when talking about other people

There is a quote by an author from the 6th century AC that comes to mind5:

Be the one who presides discrete in silence, and [useful] when speaking, so that he does not speak when he should not, nor remain quiet when he should speak. Because as careless speaking can lead others to error, not speaking up can leave others in error."

Do your homework before passing judgement

This is very relevant if you are going to say something important that will affect other people.

For example, if you work for a company that has annual performance reviews, and have a team to evaluate, do your work throughout the year, not just the week before the evaluation meeting. Have a mental framework for the evaluation. Ask other’s for feedback about your reports, specially those who are likely to attend the meeting6.

  1. Biases –cognitive biases– are tendencies to think in certain ways that can lead to systematic deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgment. See, for example, Wikipedia, List of Cognitive biases

  2. cfr Taylor Pearson, Identity Based Decision Making: How Your Identity Makes You Wealthy

  3. cfr Stephen M.R. Covey, The SPEED of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything

  4. Optional: make the compromise to donate a fixed amount of money to a worthy cause each time you fail. 

  5. Translated from the text in Spanish: “Sea el que preside discreto en el silencio y útil cuando hable, de modo que ni diga lo que se debe callar, ni calle lo que se debe decir; porque así como el hablar imprudente conduce al error, así también el silencio indiscreto deja en el error a los que podrían ser instruidos” (San Gregorio Magno, Regula Pastoralis, II, 4) 

  6. Ask for general feedback and you will find yourself with vague answers. Some people tend to remember anecdotical examples from the last weeks. So, ask for feedback about specific points. 

decision-making identity-based-decision-making managing-people objectivity rational-thinking

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