We chronically evaluate others to determine status as a friend or foe. When such decisions are made on superficial information this can create large problems for organizations that push and promote those who were favored by their environment versus their skills. The same concept can apply to companies that look at grade point average for recruiting without looking at the difficulty of earning that grade. Research by Swift et. al. (2013) delves into how these superficial decisions are made and how they can impact corporate recruiting.
Research has indicated that the majority of employers look at a candidates GPA without delving into the difficulty of obtaining those grades thereby limiting their recruiting potential. For example, a student who obtains an easy A without having to work for it is not inherently better than a student who earns a C from a school with high standards. One could make the argument that the student with an A is likely to be less prepared for success or failure than the one who received a more accurate C and understands a need for constant improvement.
The attribution error is so common that it is difficult for employers to overcome anecdotal evidence to make solid decisions. Primarily it is a problem of assuming that the level of performance in one setting will translate into the same performance in another setting and that performance is based upon personal attributions. They are unable to view the important aspects of the situation and the inclusion of personality in the final performance outcome. In other words, they simply make a surface assumption with no deeper analytical thought process.
Lewin’s attribution equation is Behavior = Disposition + Situation. Behavior as seen in terms of performance would be based on both a person’s disposition as well as their situation. When attributes are situational but contributed to disposition there is a problem in the recruitment process. For example, is one CEO better than another only because they play cricket or maintained performance in an upward moving company? One could make the argument that the CEO who doesn’t play much golf but who was able to turn around a poor running company is the higher performer (i.e. Lee Iacocca).
The researchers Swift, et. al (2013) used four studies to test the concept fundamental attribution errors in varying situations. They found that attribution errors are a fundamental problem across a number of arenas with experienced professions. They also found that employees who performed well in favorable (easy) situations, or students earned high grades in colleges with high grade distributions, were more likely rated as superior performers.
Performance measures can be accurate or inaccurate. At times performance measures can create structural bias that masks superior performance in difficult situations while enhancing mediocre performance in ideal situations. The results are perceptual based upon the information available to the professional making decisions to hire, promote, or admit. Yet even when situational information is known the far majority of professionals do not discount ease of performance attainment creating a bias in their hiring practices.
The questions becomes do we make these types of errors throughout life? Absolutely! Whether we are discussing children in school, CEO’s, or people we meet in the street we make all types of assumptions. We base these assumptions on anecdotal information because we do not have deeper information. Yet even when this information is available we will often ignore it or not make the time to see beyond our surface assumptions. Critical thinking requires judging premises and looking for alternative explanations even if our social networks are convinced of their rightness.
You may read the entire report HERE.
Swift SA, Moore DA, Sharek ZS, Gino F (2013) Inflated Applicants: Attribution Errors in Performance Evaluation by Professionals. PLoS ONE 8(7)