Want to learn everything about your co-worker’s motivations in 5 minutes? Ask how they are measured

It can be easy to misunderstand people, leading to all sorts of missed opportunities. Oftentimes it can be a simple mis-read of the circumstance’s of a given person’s situation. This is known in psychology as a Fundamental Attribution Error – we ascribe a person’s performance to quirks of personality rather than the situation that the person finds themselves in.

There’s also the False-Consensus bias – from Wikipedia:

In psychology, the false-consensus effect or false-consensus bias is an attributional type of cognitive bias whereby people tend to overestimate the extent to which their opinions, beliefs, preferences, values, and habits are normal and typical of those of others (i.e., that others also think the same way that they do).[1] This cognitive bias tends to lead to the perception of a consensus that does not exist, a “false consensus”.

Don’t think that you are effected by biases like these? You are most certainly suffering from a bias blind spot. It’s difficult, nearly impossible to have enough self-awareness to understand and gauge the power of your own biases.

But we don’t have time to understand the details of everyone’s life – this is especially true at work. We’re shielded from the context of people’s lives, and get to know them as individuals engaged in work. So how do we get to know people accurately and quickly?

Ask everyone two questions

First, I like asking people what keeps them up at night. Fear often guides our actions more strongly than does optimism. It’s also a strong signal of how someone will act, much stronger than asking them to speculate on future plans.

Second, ask people how they get measured (or how they measure themselves). What are their OKRs? If you know about how an individual’s performance is gauged, then you’ve come close to knowing a lot about their priorities. The first thing they think of will be how to improve their metrics.

Beyond individuals, this second question is a great clue to predict an organization’s future behavior. Incentives can twist behaviors in all sorts of weird ways – even turning law-abiding employees into criminals. Incentives and measured metrics are a great ‘in’ to quickly understand the motivations of different parts of the business.

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