Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 48;   November 28, 2012: Why Others Do What They Do

Why Others Do What They Do

by

If you're human, you make mistakes. A particularly expensive kind of mistake is guessing incorrectly why others do what they do. Here are some of the ways we get this wrong.
Caneel with a close friend (me)

Caneel with a close friend. I'm the one at the right. Note Caneel's expression of (barely) patient tolerance. That was pretty much the way things went with us. She liked me and I liked her (both very much), and we both put up with some things we didn't like now and then, because it was worth it. Way worth it.

When someone does something that causes you some inconvenience or discomfort, tolerance might be the best available choice. Why they did whatever they did might not make any real difference.

Although I'm currently dogless, I consider myself a dog lover. One dog in particular — Caneel, a golden retriever who passed on long ago — still occupies a warm place in my heart. Caneel taught me something about how people (myself, in particular) make mistakes when we try to understand why others do what they do.

I used to walk Caneel every morning in a park near home. Even though there was very little traffic in our neighborhood, I kept her on a lead until we reached the park, for safety. She'd pull me along, keeping the lead taut, sniffing everything as she went. I always assumed that she needed a little more obedience training.

When we would reach the park, I'd take her off lead, always expecting her to bound off immediately into the woods. She never did. She would sit, looking up at me, puzzled, tilting her head first one way then the other, as dogs do. I'd say, "OK, go!" And off she would go. I couldn't figure out why she would tug at the lead all the way to the park, and then, once freed, she needed encouragement to go run.

One day, I realized that her experience of the lead might be different from mine. She might have been thinking, "Rick put me on the lead so he won't get lost, and he wants me to pull him along to show him the way to the park." And when I took her off the lead, she might have been thinking, "Are you sure you'll be OK without me for a few minutes if I run off?"

Crazy as this explanation sounds, it fits the data. It might be right.

Often When someone does something
that causes you some inconvenience
or discomfort, tolerance might be the
best available choice. Why they did
whatever they did might not
make any real difference.
we assume that we know why others do what they do, but we're often wrong. Here are some of the many ways we get it wrong when we guess why others do what they do.

Premature conclusions
We reach conclusions before we have enough data to justify them. Sometimes, we reach conclusions with no data.
The Fundamental Attribution Error
We attribute to character what might better be attributed to circumstances. See "The Fundamental Attribution Error," Point Lookout for May 5, 2004, for more.
Presumed omniscience
We presume that we already know all there is to know about why someone might do what he or she just did.
Preferred explanations
We have biases and preferences among the many theories and conjectures about human motivation. We see what we expect to see, or worse, what we want to see.
Intimidation
We're afraid to question (or seek validation for) some hypotheses, because of the consequences of finding out that they're incorrect (or correct).

At some point today, there's a decent chance that you'll make one of these mistakes. Maybe more than one. If you do, don't ask me why. I have no clue why you do what you do. Go to top Top  Next issue: When Over-Delivering Makes Trouble  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenvEmKQIOmOcqupIlDner@ChacULkKjsOVNYLgNSQNoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Damage to Purple Loosestrife due to feeding by the galerucella beetleLateral Micromanagement
Lateral micromanagement is the unwelcome intrusion by one co-worker into the responsibilities of another. Far more than run-of-the-mill bossiness, it's often a concerted attempt to gain organizational power and rank, and it is toxic to teams.
Washington Irving, American author, 1783-1859Extrasensory Deception: I
Negotiation skills are increasingly essential in problem-solving workplaces. When incentives are strong, or pressure is high, deception is tempting. Here are some of the deceptions popular among negotiators.
The breech plug of one of the nine 16-inch guns of the U.S.S. MissouriMore Limitations of the Eisenhower Matrix
The Eisenhower Matrix is useful for distinguishing which tasks deserve attention and in what order. It helps us by removing perceptual distortion about what matters most. But it can't help as much with some kinds of perceptual distortion.
Elia Kazan, award winning film directorOn Snitching at Work: I
Some people have difficulty determining the propriety of reporting violations to authorities at work. Proper or not, reporting violations can be simultaneously both risky and necessary.
Lt. Gen. Donald Kutyna, Ret., when he was Commander of the U.S. Space CommandMore Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
Retrospectives — also known as lessons learned exercises or after-action reviews — sometimes miss important insights. Here are some additions to our growing catalog of obstacles to learning.

See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York CityComing August 23: Look Where You Aren't Looking
Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events? Available here and by RSS on August 23.
"The Thinker," by Auguste RodinAnd on August 30: They Just Don't Understand
When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others. Available here and by RSS on August 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenHoFeCiKiVTMijeMiner@ChacJschdIMHqyHxcejyoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here are some dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.