!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: David Dunning on Performance Assessment

Sunday, May 03, 2009

David Dunning on Performance Assessment

An important element of 360-degree evaluations is having a person compare his/her self-assessment to the feedback received from peers, boss, and subordinates. More often than not, there are pronounced gaps between the self-assessment and the feedback provided by others; almost invariably, the individual's view of self is rosier than how the others, as a group, view his/her performance and behavior.

David Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell, has spent many years researching "accuracy and illusion in human judgment." His 2005 book, Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself, provides an extensive treatment of his findings — which elucidate why the aforementioned gaps in 360-degree results occur so consistently.

To get an idea of Dunning's thinking you can look at the 2008 essay he and grad student Travis Carter published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass titled "Faulty Self-Assessment: Why Evaluating One's Own Competence is An Intrinsically Difficult Task."1 The abstract for the essay provides this summary:
People's perception of their competence often diverges from their true level of competence. We argue that people have such erroneous view of their competence because self-evaluation is an intrinsically difficult task. People live in an information environment that does not contain all the data they need for accurate self-evaluation. The information environment is insufficient in two ways. First, when making self-judgments, people lack crucial categories of information necessary to reach accurate evaluations. Second, although people receive feedback over time that could correct faulty self-assessments, this feedback is often biased, difficult to recognize, or otherwise flawed. Because of the difficulty in making inferences based on such limited and misleading data, it is unreasonable to expect that people will prove accurate in judgments of their skills.
The feedback from the other 270 degrees of a 360-degree assessment can help a person see him/herself more accurately, with the caveat that one must weigh the degree to which others' feedback may itself be biased. The key is for an employee's manager to follow good practice in tying feedback to specific, representative, and relevant data concerning the employee's performance.

As they explain in their essay, one of the reasons Carter and Dunning believe self-assessment is inherently difficult is that the feedback people receive is so often deficient, i.e., the available feedback does not provide full information that the recipient can utilize in assessing his/her performance.

Note that Carter and Dunning include in their definition of "feedback" not only commentary provided by others concerning a person's performance and behavior, but also the outcomes of decisions and judgments the person makes.

The deficiencies in feedback take four forms:
  • Probabilistic feedback — In many situations, there is no guarantee that making a sound decision will lead to a positive outcome. For example, an employee might do a good job coding a piece of software, but the software might not achieve critical mass in a crowded marketplace and never gain significant market share. To the extent that this is a matter of bad luck, you don't want the employee searching for what he/she did wrong — and possibly coming up with a confabulated explanation of the disappointing outcome.

  • Ambiguous feedback — Sometimes it isn't clear whether an outcome is positive or negative. For example, an employee might decide to give a certain customer a discount and then receive a substantial order. Without some probing of the customer's thinking in placing the order, it isn't clear whether the full discount was necessary to close the deal.

  • Biased feedback — People often decide to "soften the blow" when delivering negative feedback and, as a result, the message comes across as more or less positive. For example, a co-worker might tell an employee, "Your idea is worth trying," when the co-worker's unbiased opinion is that the idea lacks novelty and should be replaced with something more creative.

  • Missing feedback — Carter and Dunning cite the all-too-common problem of managers withholding positive feedback because they think employees are simply doing the jobs they were hired to do. The upshot is that employees may not realize they're on the right track, and think that they need to veer off in a different — suboptimal — direction. There is also the problem of people looking only for evidence that confirms a decision or judgment, so that they overlook disconfirming evidence. And there is the issue of incomplete feedback, such as telling an employee that a first-draft spreadsheet analysis is useful, but not taking time to discuss how it could be improved.
Carter and Dunning conclude their article by noting the circumstances in which accurate self-assessment is most feasible and likely:
If the individual is competent [training helps here], can receive information about errors of omission, can get clear feedback, and is working on a well-defined task, self-judgment can be very accurate. One should not forget this other side of the coin — and also not forget that to the extent that one can create a world with these circumstances, one's sense of self will lie close to the truth.
You can learn more about David Dunning's research by visiting the website of the Self and Social Insight (SaSI) Lab, of which Dunning is the director.

1 "Faulty Self-Assessment: Why Evaluating One's Own Competence is an Intrinsically Difficult Task," Travis J. Carter and David Dunning, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2008), pp. 346-360.


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