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Do unto others 20% better than you would expect them to do unto you, to correct for subjective error.

Linus Pauling

Well that’s interesting, isn’t it?

An update of the venerable golden rule?

Apparently, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” doesn’t quite cut it anymore …

… because subjective error is involved …

… which is what, exactly?

Subjective error is error caused by biases or prejudices.

You are familiar with at least these likely suspects —

  • At the end of each training session, the trainer asks for feedback from participants.
  • At each quarterly meeting, the sales directors give a forecast of what’s in the pipeline for next quarter’s sales.
  • A manager working with his coach on setting up his 360 degree feedback process cherry-picks the people he will ask to participate.

You think there might be some subjective error here?

There almost undoubtedly is.


Yes, undoubtedly.

A tell tale sign of subjective error is when you run across some dissonance.  Some disconfirming evidence.  Contrary information.

Let’s revisit those likely suspects …

The trainer feels pretty good about receiving a 4.6 average on the standard 5-point Likert scale, interpreting that result to mean the training was highly effective.  But informal comments participants make outside the classroom to peers and others indicate that feedback rating did not reflect their true perception of the training session …

As for those sales directors, quarter after quarter the actual sales never quite line up with the projections, and there are always explanations for the pipeline leakage …

And that manager’s 360?  It comes back pretty positive, with even the lowest ranked items comparing favoritively to the norms … But how do we square that result with the poor morale of that manager’s workgroup?

What’s to be done about this?

We need to be aware of the subjective error.  And we need to account for it, and factor it in to our decision making.  Awareness can come by simply recognizing that when there’s self-interest to protect, or social influence at work, there is likely to be subjective error. 

The trainees in the session might not be real comfortable in telling the trainer that the training — or her delivery of it — wasn’t quite stellar.  And the sales directors certainly need to project strong sales, or they face a challenging set of questions that can be threatening or embarrassing.  And that manager with the 360?  Critical feedback is threatening in even the most benign situations …

So, when we see situations where conditions are ripe for producing subjective error, we need to consider not taking the data at face value.  We need to consider an adjustment factor.  

Twenty-Percent-On-VATWe need to think about that 20%.

Now, if this doesn’t sit well with you … if you’re not happy with the 20% markup on the golden rule these days … there is something else you can do.

You can try and design out the subjective error.  You can try and remove the bias and the predudice.

Any thoughts on how to do that? 

Begin your pondering …