Attribution errors, leadership and how they affect our perception

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Reading the papers this morning I was struck by how much journalism seems to circulate around ‘what went wrong and who’s to blame?’. I suppose I shouldn’t be, it’s a manifestation of one of the most pervasive biases of humankind – fundamental attribution.

Put simply, in our complex world, human brains need to organise the plethora of data and stimuli that we encounter each day and we need short cuts and work arounds. One of those short cut mechanisms is our desire to apply reason or cause and effect to things.When it comes to fellow human behaviour – family, friends, colleagues or even people we have absolutely no relationship with at all, such as politicians, or celebrities – we attribute meaning and interpretation to their actions and behaviour. This is fine, understandable in the main, but also potentially unhelpful and unfair, even dangerous when attribution biases kick in. It goes like this, when something goes wrong and we feel the need to make sense of it, we tend to attribute the cause to some failing on the part of the individual, rarely the circumstances.

And yet, when things go well and we determine reasoning, the opposite is true. This time we attribute cause to the circumstances and rarely the individual. Then there’s a third complexity. Once we have attributed something to an individual, for example “they’re just not good at managing large projects”, that is the lens through which we continue to view that individual.  No matter what they go on to do there is a heightened chance we will attribute our observations to our previous conclusions about them – to strengthen our case. They’ve been pigeon holed!

 

The Implication for Leadership

There are many, but here are just a few:

Attribution bias can lead to us….

  • Putting a filter on our view of people and resources that is potentially limiting and restrictive, instead of optimising the output of all.
  • Appear biased, incredible, narrow minded and fixed in our beliefs and approach, instead of inspiring, trustworthy, insightful and wise.
  • Assume things of people and groups that causes us to focus our thinking and efforts into planning strategies of defence or attack, instead of investing our time in creativity, curiosity and collaborative approaches.
  • Promote behviours in those around us which are about trying to impress, covering up mistakes and not feeling able to tell the truth, instead of speaking honestly, surfacing problems and alerting to looming crises.
  • Cause feelings of injustice in others, which drives potentially unethical behaviour and unjust decisions as people attempt to balance the scales.

 

How Do We Overcome Attribution Error?

Leaders can do 3 things to overcome attribution errors.

A simple mantra…..

1. Observation – make accurate and acute observations of a person or scenario, see what is truly happening
2. Interpretation – hold the line; be aware of attribution and have the courage to remain on the side of objectivity
3. Response – actively separate the coupling between stimulus and automatic response; choose your response, intelligently and deliberately.

If any of these three stages are done poorly, we diminish optimum outcome and each are a skill in their own right.

In today’s organisational environment where complexity has far overtaken complicatedness, process, procedure, and routine are helpful, but increasingly inadequate. Effectiveness is more and more about judgement, choice, interpretation and courage of thought. More than ever, leaders need people to be at their best and they need to create the conditions to enable that to occur. The logic follows, if attribution error can lead to futile, or even unconsciously counterproductive responses from leaders, the skills to address this bias should feature in development for leaders today, or at least development which claims to be truly about behavioural change.