Attribution bias affects how we explain poor performance. Who’s to blame? (To whom, or what, do we “attribute” the problem?)
Well, it depends – are we talking about your performance or mine?
If it’s my performance, and there’s a problem, I’m likely to blame external factors – the environment. For example, if I’m unemployed, it’s because of the bad job market.
But if it’s someone else’s performance, I’m likely to blame internal factors – the person. If you’re unemployed, it’s because of your lackluster job campaign.
Unfortunately, knowing about attribution bias doesn’t prevent it.
A few days ago, a repairperson came to our house to clean our heating system, an annual job. He was working in the basement when, suddenly, he popped upstairs with some distressing news.
“Your la-la-la just broke,” he said. (That’s not exactly what he said; he used a technical term, but at the time, I was in a state of shock.)
“How did that happen?” I asked. “It’s never broken before.”
“Exactly,” he said. “It was overdue. Your la-la-la just got old.”
In his mind, the demise of our la-la-la was an act of nature (external attribution). In my mind, he broke it (internal). Either way, it’s going to cost $300.
Whose explanation is right?
Well, maybe that’s the wrong question.
Tip #1: Let’s stop asking, “Who’s to blame?” That triggers defensiveness. A better question – for both managers and employees: “How might each of us have contributed to this problem?”
(The concept of contribution comes from an excellent book, “Difficult Conversations,” written by several contributors: Stone, Patton, Heen).
Tip #2: And if you happen to break someone’s la-la-la, think about how you might contribute to the repair bill.
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Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.
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