False success | Inquirer Business

False success

In response to our mental health series (May 11, 18, 25 and June 1, 2023), many readers decried grade inflation, and researchers pinpoint the customer-centric practice of student evaluations as a culprit.

“Grade point averages have increased for decades, whereas the time students invest in their studies has decreased,” says Wolfgang Stroebe in Perspectives in Psychological Science.

“One major contributor to this paradox is grading leniency, encouraged by the practice of university administrators to base important personnel decisions on student evaluations of teaching. Grading leniency creates strong incentives for instructors to teach in ways that would result in good student evaluations. Because many instructors believe that the average student prefers courses that are entertaining, require little work and result in high grades, they feel under pressure to conform to those expectations. The positive association between student grades and their evaluation of teaching reflects a bias rather than teaching effectiveness.”


I don’t feel inclined to discuss grade inflation any more, but read University of the Philippines’ sociologist Randy David’s column (July 24, 2022) for a thoughtful take on this phenomenon.


Instead, let us link grade inflation to broader psychological findings. Discounting grade inflation is an example of what psychologists call attribution errors. Individuals tend to attribute personal success to their own character, and personal failure to external factors beyond their control, while reversing this for others.

If you are late for work, you attribute it to traffic, but when your colleagues don’t show up on time, you attribute this to their laziness.

Grade inflation may seem trivial, but attribution errors are not. A family business asked my help when their first non-family CEO, P, left after just a year. P had a glowing resume from multinationals, but during his tenure, employees left en masse and profits fell. I diagnosed the main cause as lack of fit with the family business culture.

The second CEO, B, was well-liked by everyone, but after three years, he suffered a heart attack. Under B’s leadership, employee attrition went down, but profits remained stagnant. It turned out that B’s glory days in his old company were due to favorable market conditions, but when he faced a more challenges in this family enterprise, he did not perform as well— another attribution error.

Instead of contacting the head hunter again, I suggested that a family member return and become interim CEO, while we groom vice presidents to succeed him. We needed someone at ease with company culture, and who surmounted pertinent challenges—so the logical choice had to be someone already in the organization with a good track record. The board agreed, and decided to train several candidates for two years, and afterwards, choose the best one to be CEO.

When companies ask me how to distinguish among graduates if everyone seems to have Latin honors. I tell them to give applicants other tasks to check whether learning truly occurred.


Google reportedly eschews grades during the application process, with SVP Laszlo Bock in 2013 stating that these are inversely related to innovation. After reviewing the results of their hiring process, “the company’s most important and productive new ideas come from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room,” as quoted in the website of Twenty One Toys, a “learning and development toy company, using toys to teach what textbooks can’t.” The B-teams have better soft skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence.

The site also quotes Stanford professor Carol Dweck, who pioneered the growth mindset, as saying, “It’s important for students to know that grades and test scores, although important in today’s world, do not tell them what they are capable of achieving in the future. Many people’s abilities blossom later when they dedicate themselves to something they value and are deeply interested in.”

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Queena N. Lee-Chua is on the Board of Directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her print book “All in the Family Business” at Lazada or Shopee, or e-book at Amazon, Google Play, Apple iBooks. Contact the author at [email protected].

TAGS: All in the Family

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