Sept. 16, 2013
This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.
My first jujitsu sensei would constantly yell at us to not reach for the ground when being thrown. His point was that if someone is throwing you and you yield to your natural reactions, you will try to catch yourself with an arm or a leg. In jujitsu, this is good way to end up with a broken arm or leg. What makes learning to fall difficult is that our tendency is reach out is so natural, so deeply ingrained, that we do it without thinking. Students sometimes don’t believe they are doing it until they see themselves on video. Reaching out like that is a very simple, reflexive way of protecting our heads when we fall: it’s better to break your arm than your head. For very young children, it’s great since it takes no training, their bodies are light, and bones are still flexible. However, for adults, it’s not so pleasant and is a serious problem in a great many situations where an untrained reaction is not appropriate or safe: knowing how to fall is why I didn’t get badly hurt the time a car ran a stop sign and helped me dive over the handlebars of my bicycle.
By the same token, we have cognitive shortcuts or biases that are decent default behaviors in many situations, but are of limited value to us in the workplace or other modern organizational settings. Like reaching for the ground, they are simple and easy to use: we are built to use as little energy as possible whenever possible. Particularly when we are tired or distracted, we tend to fall back on these cognitive shortcuts. However, like that untrained jujitsu student’s reflexive reaching for the ground, they are just setting us up for organizational injury. Just as the jujitsu student is being thrown with too much force to reach without serious injury, organizational issues are almost always too complex for us to get away with cheap answers.
Fundamental Attribution Error
“There’s a guy in your office named Joe. Joe’s not getting his work done, he’s missing deadlines. How come?”
I will often pose this question when I conduct management training or when I speak on leadership. It’s always interesting how people answer. Most of the time, people tell me what’s wrong with Joe: he’s not dedicated, he’s goofing off, he doesn’t care, he’s incompetent. Eventually, someone will say, “Wait a minute. You didn’t give us any information about Joe.” Sometimes this takes ten minutes! It might take longer, but I always stop it by then.
What’s happening here is that we automatically attribute problems or poor performance to the person, not to situational factors. This makes sense when we are all experiencing the same environment and doing essentially identical tasks: for example, people living in a small community or working on an assembly line. If most factors are identical, one person’s poor performance is probably due to the person. This can cause trouble in our modern society: When our dinner date doesn’t show up, we assume it means she doesn’t actually want to spend time with us rather than assuming her car broke down or she was caught in traffic. Did that client not return my call because he didn’t want to talk with me, or was it because his office is in Manhattan and he lost power after Hurricane Sandy? In the actual, real-life situation from which I drew the story of Joe, the reason Joe was missing deadlines was that the vendor who was supposed to provide the material he needed was always late and Joe didn’t have the option of changing vendors.
We will often apply the fundamental attribution error to ourselves retrospectively: how could I have ever made such a stupid decision? We forget that the decision may have made complete sense with the information we had available at the time or that other situational factors might have contributed.
When we know someone well, however, the fundamental attribution error will often reverse itself: I know Bob. Bob is a hard worker. Something must be wrong. If you’ve arranged to meet your wife at a restaurant after work and she doesn’t arrive in time, odds are you’ll start worrying that she might have been in a car accident or something, rather than assuming she doesn’t want to spend time with you.
One of the biggest problems stemming from the fundamental attribution error is that it can trap us into playing the blame game instead of understanding why a system isn’t working. We’ll look at that in more depth shortly.
Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” Steve’s latest book, “Organizational Psychology for Managers,” is due out from Springer in late 2013. For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit www.7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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