A child is wailing two rows down from you on an overcrowded flight to Montreal.  You glance over, wonder what the commotion is about and resolve to buy the overpriced earplugs (ok, they’re really headphones) that the flight attendant is proffering. Maybe, just maybe you might be able to get some sleep.  Ten minutes later the wailing has intensified to banshee like levels. Why doesn’t the father do something?  If you were the parent you would…

How many times have we had thoughts such as these?   We see a situation, make a snap judgement and attach blame based on our pre-conceived idea of some personal lack of character or ability. What’s interesting, is that if we were in the same situation we would consider the external circumstances. Our child is crying because our flight got delayed three times, or we had to switch planes unexpectedly because of a malfunction, or little Timmy is teething.  

This tendency to place emphasis on internal characteristics (personality) to explain someone else’s behavior, rather than considering the situation’s external factors, is the Fundamental Attribution Bias.

You:  The Leader
You signed up to be the leader and you now understand that failures are a result of multiple factors. However, you may be alone in your thinking because of the information you have access to.  As the leader, you have an opportunity to define how your team analyzes failures to extract maximum learning.  You can teach them to interrogate reality and resist the temptation to point at a single data point or single person.  Create a culture that avoids laying blame and instead focus on one that accurately tries to describe reality.

Author Edwin Friedman once wrote, “In any situation, the person who can most accurately describe reality without laying blame will emerge as the leader, whether designated or not.”

Now here is where it gets interesting:  The leader who creates this type of culture is also creating an invisible force field that protects against “The Fundamental Attribution Bias” as those around you become more likely to look at all factors which contributed to any failure or defect. This team will also craft better solutions and workarounds to prevent future failures.  How about that?

Leadership doesn’t feel so lonely all of a sudden.

Why the Attribution Effect Matters on a Day to Day Basis

  • Consider external factors before judging a co-worker’s actions or words
  • Create work environments where external factors are controlled, or can, at least, be moderated and accounted for
  • Ask questions to understand motivation
  • Position information based on how the person needs to receive it – consider communication styles
  • When managing a team explain why a significant task or action is necessary to help your team understand why it needs to be done

Clients: Why This Matters When You’re Hiring

You look at a candidate’s resume and notice that he took a lower paying job and a lesser title in his most recent role. You are about to put the resume on the discard pile and then stop – everything else about the candidate is ticking all the right boxes, is it worth the interview?

  • Understand that we see situations from the outside
  • Consider interviewing the candidate – there might be a reason for what he/she did – skill set gains, industry experience, or the chance to work with a mentor
  • Ask questions during the interview that are behavioral based to determine a candidate’s problem solving process
  • Don’t hesitate to ask clarifying questions to understand a candidate’s actions and motivation

 Candidates: Why This Matters in an Interview

  • Because we (this includes employers) have a tendency to make judgements based on thin slices of data, it’s imperative to identify where employers might see gaps in our skill set and prepare accordingly
  • Prepare success stories to illustrate problem solving capabilities
  • Use the STAR method to craft a compelling story – state the situation that arose, the task to be handled, the action that you took in response and the results that were achieved
  • Use outcome focused language to describe accomplishments
  • Make sure to end your interview strongly by reiterating your interest and asking if there is anything that needs clarifying
  • Never speak badly about a past employer – the Attribution Effect means that people can attribute the issue to poor judgement or a gap on your part, rather than the situation

Key Takeaways

Before you judge a person’s actions, words or resume consider the Attribution Effect. Understand that we have a tendency to perceive someone’s actions as a reflection of their personality, rather than external circumstances. In contrast, we are much more likely to look at situational factors when it comes to ourselves. This can make us rush to judgement and discard a worthy candidate, or become disenchanted with a member of our team. Ultimately, by understanding how the Attribution Effect can colour our perception we can become better managers, team members and hiring agents – and that is well worth the investment of time.

Want to read more about the Attribution Effect? Check out this Wikipedia article.

Your Next Step

No one should walk the job search or hiring road alone. At Clarity Recruitment we help others realize their success through a process that marries proprietary technology with unwavering commitment.  Contact us today to take control of your career, or to partner with us to hire well.

Clarity Recruitment, connecting exceptional people with remarkable companies.




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