Why do high-performers become average performers? Often it is not their performance but rather the situation impacting them and this is particularly true when there is a leadership change. It is not uncommon to watch a highly-regarded employee plunge to average or worse upon working for a new manager. Why does this happen? Well, I don’t think it is because the contributor changes their output. Most of us are conscientious and hard working and will continue to give our jobs our best effort no matter who is in charge. Can we then attribute changes in performance not to the performer but rather to the leader?
Leaders come into their position with goals, communication styles, and biases that significantly impact their perceptions of what kind of performer someone is. And this might be the key. When we evaluate someone’s performance, we rate them as good or bad performer. We don’t typically think about their contribution as a good or bad performance.
The fundamental attribution error can explain this bias. I’ve heard the fundamental attribution error described this way: when someone blows by me on the highway going 20 miles-an-hour faster, and I am already speeding, I might think they are a risk-loving, dangerous nutball. Likely I will not wonder if they are late for a plane or a crucial doctor’s appointment.
Understanding the fundamental attribution error is important in association leadership because knowing this can help us improve performance where formerly we may not have known improvements existed. When we think someone is a bad performer their future performance is largely out of our hands. When instead we focus on the performance (a goal not met, a common stumbling block, a communication style issue, a process not used, etc.) helping them improve is on us.