A new executive hired from outside of a national organization saw that the leadership team in place didn’t collaborate well. Having worked with her on another project, she asked a colleague and myself to help her build trust and open communication in the top team. One factor that makes this kind of work difficult is the natural human tendency to inaccurately attribute causes for our own and others' behaviors. At least in western cultures, it is common to see the causes of people’s behaviors as being due to their predispositions and who they are as people and underestimate the importance of external factors and conditions (often called the fundamental attribution error). However, when we explain our own behavior, we tend to see our successes as caused by our own great qualities while our failures are due to difficult external situations and circumstances (the self-serving bias).
So my road rage is justified because that other driver who just cut me off is inconsiderate and careless, while a bit earlier I switched lanes too quickly (which I never usually do) because I happen to be in a rush to get to a very important meeting. Entrepreneurs may take credit for successes but blame losses and failures on a bad economy, competition from chain stores, or other outside factors. And there is a tendency toward group-serving biases: in our organizations (and, perhaps, our countries), we are doing the best we can under the circumstances, while those others are all “bad dudes.”
In the workplace, I believe that biased attributions get in the way of understanding our colleagues, teams, or departments. We easily become convinced that, ‘he couldn’t care less’ or ‘they don’t understand how difficult we have it.’ Surfacing these kinds of assumptions was critical to help the leadership team mentioned at the beginning of the post address long-standing tensions. The easy tendency to blame and finger-pointing corrodes relationships, feeds defensiveness, and hinders effective collaboration. Conducting an honest assessment of what happened in a project is unlikely in such an environment, thus preventing a team from learning from experience.
Attribution biases can also limit our self-reflection and personal growth: if we believe a project didn’t work out primarily due to circumstances out of our control, we may not take a more careful look at our actions or realistically assess our strengths and areas for improvement. And when things go well, we may give ourselves all the credit when we may have benefited greatly from luck and favorable circumstances.
The tendency to make erroneous causal attributions can have a real impact on personal and team effectiveness. With this in mind, here are a few ideas for reflection and action:
- Try to pay attention and notice when blame is being tossed back-and-forth. This is much easier to do when observing others, but see if you can note if you have a tendency to focus on others’ faults while explaining away your own behavior.
- Identify one or more sources for honest feedback (a trusted mentor, coach, or colleague) to help you explore your own strengths, areas for improvement, and blindspots.
- Look for opportunities to change the rules of the blame game in your organization. It’s vital for team members and departments to open up communication and hear each other out to check assumptions and increase understanding—which can then open the door to developing creative and mutually acceptable solutions.