Are you relying on your preconceived notions to explain employee performance?

Performance issues aren’t always what they seem

Grace always seems physically fit and active to me, and I’m well aware of her fearful disposition. So I’m prone to be oblivious to any physical issue she’s facing and immediately blame the action on her mental state. What are you missing when trying to resolve an issue with employee performance?

I think of Grace as agile. Nimble. Fast. And it’s not just me, others often comment on her speed.

Those associations lead me to believe she’s healthy and physically fit. And because of Grace’s pronounced fearful disposition, I immediately attribute any unusual behavior to her mental state.

And I’m wrong to do so.

How often do you fall back on your preconceived notions of another person to explain a particular behavior you witnessed? Managers find themselves making assumptions about why an employee didn’t complete a task, or made an error, or moved ahead with something that had not been approved yet.

Last week when Grace refused to get in the car for our walks, it was obvious something was wrong. But I jumped to the conclusion that she had been spooked or scared of something, as has been the case in the past. But as the days went by, she resisted going up stairs, too. There was no other outward signs of discomfort. She didn’t flinch when we touched her, nor winced when she jogged along in the yard. She was a bit subdued, but the consistent signal was not wanting to jump or move in an upward movement. I was starting to question that I “knew” what was going on, but it took me several days and I was slow to think about this differently.

She travels up and down the stairs in our house a lot and there were ample times for me to pick up on this change. When she opted to stay downstairs to sleep at night, that’s when I knew she was serious! This is a dog that wants to be in the same room with you, almost always, but especially in the dark! She had finally found the way to get me to listen to her.

A trip to the vet confirmed a back issue. I don’t recall any time or place where the injury could have happened, but it did. And if I had continued to blame the problem on a mental condition, I would have missed the opportunity to fix what was really creating her pain, and the changed behavior.

Making those assumptions isn’t the real issue, because to some extent, we can’t help but rely on our past experiences to guide us in our decision-making. But when we don’t follow-up on what we see or hear, we do everyone a disservice. With employees, we must strike up a conversation to explore the reasons or we miss out on the opportunity to understand the situation accurately.

You may never know the real reason for a new behavior, either, and I’m not suggesting you try.

I am recommending that you solve the problem, though. There are ways you can improve the situation.

  • When something happens that is unusual (good or bad), recognize it and comment on it. In either case, you are opening up the dialogue for better understanding of what is needed in the job requirements.
  • As you broach the topic, share your perceptions. Explain how you viewed the action (or lack thereof), and explore the motivation from a point of curiosity as opposed to blame. For example, you could say, “I noticed that you purchased that inventory from a vendor that had not been approved yet. It makes me think that since you preferred this supplier, it was a way to ensure you got what you wanted. I’m curious as to how you viewed what you did.” I would continue the line of discussion to raise awareness of any associated problems that were caused (people don’t always see the numerous ways they impact others when they are focused on their own needs), along with ways the person will handle this situation in the future (getting their ideas and ownership for the solution).
  • Use assessments to help you gain a deeper, more accurate view of a person’s behavioral traits. It can help you see the person’s strengths in a new way.


So, now I’m curious. I’d love to hear your experiences. When have you been fooled to make a judgment about a person that seemed obvious at the time, but later turned out to be inaccurate? What was the impact and what have you done differently since then?

Opening the conversation allows us all to learn. We can find ways to fix it together.

Smart Tips Served Straight to Your Inbox

Want to build healthy, productive workplace relationships??? Join our community of Graceful Leaders/Managers and get access to tips, insights, and resources right in your inbox.

BONUS: Sign up now and receive a FREE animal-inspired gift: “3 Management Tips from Dog!"

Share with a friend using one of the buttons below. Then sign up so you can receive stories, tips, and guidance to help you develop healthy workplace relationships in your organization!


  1. Laurie Bartolo on October 11, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Hi Robin! I’m so sorry to hear about Grace’s back problem! It is so easy to miss these things with out pets, and as you’ve pointed out here, the same thing can happen with people too. I see managers and direct reports getting locked in these patterns a lot – the managers have certain beliefs about each person who works for them (and sometimes their beliefs are way off target), and those beliefs drive the way things get done (or not done). The best managers take the time to get to know their team members and really understand what makes them tick (and this may mean challenging some of the assumptions they have made about the person). I only wish we were able to have the same open dialog with our pets! Hope Grace is feeling better soon!

  2. Robin on October 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    Hi Laurie. Always interesting to hear your perspective given your strong HR background. It is sure difficult to overcome some of our beliefs, especially when the employee shuts down and gives up hope of any understanding. Isn’t it ironic that we are able to have open dialogue with other people (as opposed to how challenging that is with pets) but we still choose not to do so. Thanks again so much for taking time to comment!

Leave a Comment