One class of errors in judgment is what psychologists call projection errors. A projection error is the unconscious assumption that others think, feel, judge, or perceive more or less what we do. For instance, those who drink (abstain from) alcohol tend to overestimate (underestimate) the drinking habits of others. This phenomenon is common, but we tend to underestimate its importance at work.
Underestimating the incidence of projection errors is itself a projection error. For instance, those who believe that they make our work-related decisions only on solid, legitimate bases tend to believe that others do, too. On the other hand, those who believe that at times it is necessary to make decisions on more "convenient" bases, regard those who make only principled choices as weak and naïve. Because the more ruthless among us want to see themselves as strong, they project their own "weakness" on others, and conclude that most people operate in a straightforward manner. From whichever side of the fence we view our colleagues, we see their choices as relatively freer of projection errors than they actually are.
Here are three examples of situations in which projection errors tend to occur at work.
- In negotiations, the assumption that the negotiation partner behaves rationally (by our own lights) is a common form of the error. For example, when we "sweeten" an offer, using incentives we believe will be attractive, we rarely consider the possibility that external constraints unrelated to the negotiation might prevent the acceptance of any offer whatsoever. When our offers are rejected, we label the rejections as irrational.
- Keep an open mind about the motives of and constraints upon negotiation partners.
- Performance reviews
- Keep an open mind about
the motives of and constraints
upon negotiation partners
- In performance reviews, the supervisor is at risk of making a projection error when some aspect of the subordinate's behavior happens to match a weakness of the supervisor. As a defense against his or her own feelings of fallibility, the supervisor might then "ding" the subordinate for the behavior that the supervisor unconsciously exhibits.
- When undertaking a performance review, meditate on similarities between yourself and your subordinate. When you find a shared weakness, be especially alert to projection errors.
- Workplace politics
- Most of us, from time to time, have dark motives we hold in check, and dark thoughts on which we do not act. We feel bad about them, and sometimes we have uncomfortable feelings about them. To protect ourselves from this discomfort, we sometimes project these dark thoughts onto others. We attribute dark motives to rivals, whether or not we have evidence for such motives. Relationships suffer.
- Your enemy might not really be your enemy. You might just be having difficulty with a part of yourself.
Projection errors abound elsewhere, too. To detect a possible projection error, look for strong reactions to people — positive or negative. When you find one, consider the possibility that the two of you share something of which you might not be fully aware. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
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- Some Hazards of Skip-Level Interviews: I
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 21: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
- When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable. Available here and by RSS on February 21.
- And on February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
- Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.