When software goes wrong, bosses blame employees (if they don't like them)

New research shows that some bosses can be naturally abusive and use alleged bad job performance as an excuse.

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Some bosses really need perceptual training.

Screenshot by ZDNet

With the proliferation of data comes the danger of certainty.

You (think you) can always find the reason a product sells. Or doesn't.

You (think you) can also discover which employees are productive and which aren't.

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Which all tends to eschew another truth: the data-free subjectivity of humans. 

Please forgive this philosophical rumination, but I've just been dipping into research from large minds at the University of Calgary and the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers were fascinated by abusive managers. The sorts that get mad when something goes wrong.

Previous research had suggested that some managers just can't cope with underperforming underlings. These researchers, though, wondered whether accusations of poor performance were rather affected by the skewed people-judgment of managers.

They conducted two little experiments. One seemed to show that employees often thought they were more diligent than their bosses did.

It was the second, though, that may make many employees scream and many managers (hopefully) look in the mirror and sing Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word.

This involved offering managers various scenarios surrounding an employee's apparent poor performance.

Say the researchers: "We then randomly assigned them to various scenarios indicating what was responsible for the poor outcome, such as the employee, a software malfunction, or both. We asked them what share of the blame they put on the software versus the employee."

You'll be startled into making the sounds of coyotes in heat when I tell you the next part.

"We found that when supervisors were told that the employee's lack of effort and the malfunction were equally responsible for the poor outcome, they still blamed the employee most," say the researchers.

And there you were thinking well of people. There you were thinking that bosses are bosses for a reason and one of the reasons must be their ability to manage well. And there you were suddenly realizing why you won't get promoted.

One more for the road, perhaps?

How about: "Our research suggests it may be perceptual errors on the part of managers that deserve more blame."

Essentially, then, if a manager has decided an employee is a poor performer, objective evidence that an error is not the employee's fault doesn't matter.

I have a theory about this.

Too often, managers believe someone is a poor performer simply because they don't like that person.

The personal bias is built-in. It won't be easily shifted. How many times does the word "like" get substituted for words like "rate," "respect" or even "appreciate"?

"I like how Martin works," can, too often, simply mean "I like Martin."

At what point, then, will some managers have the training to examine their personal biases? At what point will they be confronted with the realities that this research seems to uncover?

Or could it be that some will get away with their biases as they rise to the very top?

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