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Did You Screw Up?

Thursday, 17 Dec 2009 | 9:42 AM ET

Suppose you and I are scheduled to meet at 8 am, but I arrive 20 minutes late. After apologizing, I explain why I’m late.

“Traffic,” I say. “There was a bad accident. Nothing moved.”

But you’re thinking, “Traffic??? What a lame excuse. Paul should have left earlier. Or taken a different route. Or ditched his car and strapped on some roller blades.”

Welcome to attribution bias.

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.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

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