What happened there? One mistake we all make.

We spend much of our life seeking explanations. What caused the issue with production last Tuesday? Why is the market down today? Why was Steve Jobs so successful?

The term cognitive dissonance was first made popular by Leon Festinger in 1957. The general idea is humans make sense of the world by bringing different ideas into balance – we strive for internal consistency. We each have our own world view and when events arise that put that world view into question, our minds work quickly to reconcile the new information with the old world view. Unlike my checkbook, most human minds do not like being out of balance.

Although we humans like our mental checkbook in balance, there’s a problem –most of us hate accounting. We skip steps and perform the mental reconciliation in haste.

A recent WSJ article titled “Email Enigma: When the Boss’s Reply Seems Cryptic” provides a great example of a mental reconciliation gone bad. From the article:

“Jill Campen was baffled recently when her boss Marty Finkle fired back a one-word reply to her carefully thought-out email asking for his approval on a client-training presentation she had prepared: “Done!” Ms. Campen, a consultant at Scotwork North America in Parsippany, N.J., puzzled over the message for a half-hour, then decided she was too upset to resolve the matter by email. She called Mr. Finkle and asked, “What is going on with you? ‘Done?’ What does that mean?”

So what was the result of Ms. Campen’s mental haste? She attributed her boss’s quick response to a negative disposition rather than Mr. Finkle’s situation – he was busy and did not have time to provide a more thorough response.

The technical term that Stanford psychologist Lee Ross coined to describe this mistake is “fundamental attribution error” – the error of attributing an outcome to personal traits or disposition rather than the situation or context.

We are all guilty of the same mistake that Ms. Campen made. Take for instance our society’s obsession with our heroes – when we read a powerful autobiography, our takeaway (at least mine) tends to center on individual traits and acts rather than the context and situation that allowed the man or woman to succeed.

So back to this term – fundamental attribution error – when determining the cause of an event we can attribute some of the cause to personal traits and some of the cause to context. We consistently over allocate causes to individuals, but why? Books have written about this – a short summary is that it’s easier to attribute causes to individuals rather than context.

So why does this matter? This matters because people often receive blame or credit, when really our focus should be on process, the environment or some deeper cause of the success or failure.

Take for instance the media coverage of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. I’ve heard much analysis of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson – the police officer that shot Brown. This is a look into personal attributes. I’ve only read a couple of pieces that go deep on the situation that led to the shooting.

Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York City police officer, has spoken at length about the close proximity of Darren Wilson to Michael Brown just before the shooting occurred and how that was an important contributor to the escalation. Could a change in protocol or tactics help change the outcome? In a search to learn from this tragedy, the contextual and situational factors should receive the same coverage as the personal dispositions of Brown and Wilson.

Another example that is probably more familiar – what tends to happen when something goes wrong at your company? I mean really wrong – not just an inconsequential error. Is there discipline around finding the root cause? Or is a person (or group) pointed to as the main culprit?

This real issue here is this – when we make an incorrect attribution we fail to learn what is really going on. We spend our time trying to be like our heroes by trying to emulate personal traits rather than his or her situation. We attempt to compete with the industry leader by hiring key talent rather than examining the environment that allows the leader to succeed.

So what is the answer to this common mistake that we all seem to make? Step one is to recognize that we have a tendency to over attribute causes to people rather than situations. If you get this, you are well on your way to avoiding the grip of the fundamental attribution error.

Step two is to begin looking for patterns and systems. Think back to the email exchange between Ms. Campen and her boss – could there be a plausible situational factor that might lead him to respond to her email with one word – “noted”? Of course there is – perhaps he is busy. Maybe he just finished a difficult meeting with his boss. Has he ever responded in this way before? We can start to notice patterns and systems by thinking about and noticing the context.

The next time you are seeking to explain a terse email, the words from your spouse or the factors of a tragic event, don’t stop with the personal attribution. Remember that situational factors drive behavior just as much as personal traits and dispositions.


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