Attribution is what we humans do when we explain others' behavior. How we do it, and how accurately we do it, affect how we treat others. In the workplace, at the organizational scale, attributions affect strategy, practices, policy, and behavior. As Fritz Heider writes, "Of great importance for our picture of the social environment is the attribution of events to causal sources. … Attribution in terms of impersonal and personal causes, and with the latter, in terms of intent, are everyday occurrences that determine much of our understanding of and reaction to our surroundings." [Heider 1958]
Much depends on what we believe of others' motivations — so much that it's important to appreciate how common attribution errors are. For example, as individuals, we commit the Fundamental Attribution Error when we attribute another's behavior too much to character and personality, and too little to circumstances. See "The Fundamental Attribution Error," Point Lookout for May 5, 2004, for more.
The Ultimate Attribution Error (UAE), first identified by Thomas Pettigrew [Pettigrew 1979], is another error, made with respect to entire groups. By contributing to social prejudices, it significantly compromises workplace decision-making. Ethnic, gender, and age prejudices come to mind, but there are also some surprising effects.
Let's consider an example. The standard term for the attributor's group is ingroup. The group whose behavior is being attributed to some cause is the outgroup. Suppose Inez belongs to the ingroup and Oscar belongs to the outgroup. Inez commits the UAE when she over-attributes Oscar's (or the outgroup's) successes to circumstances, and his (or the outgroup's) failures to lack of talent, diligence, or foresight. She also commits the UAE when she over-attributes her own (or the ingroup's) successes to her own (or the ingroup's) talent, diligence, or foresight, and her own (or the ingroup's) failures to circumstances.
Inez's Our attributions are sometimes
correct, because the Ultimate
Attribution Error isn't
determinative. It acts
only to skew attributions.attributions are sometimes correct, because the UAE acts only to skew attributions in favor of circumstances for the ingroup's failures or for the outgroup's successes, and in favor of degree of talent, diligence, or foresight for the ingroup's successes or for the outgroup's failures.
Failure to mitigate UAE risk can produce expensive mistakes. For example, some project sponsors dispute project managers' schedule estimates, because they believe that project managers "pad" their estimates. Project managers who supply honest estimates suffer most, but some others do pad their estimates, because they anticipate that their sponsors will reject them. The result is that many schedule discussions are based on false data and prejudice. Schedule performance becomes unreliable, and the organization cannot plan its resource needs with confidence.
To mitigate UAE risk in this situation an organization could take five steps.
- Acknowledge that UAE is a risk, and educate all at-risk parties about the UAE
- Require that project risk plans explain how they address UAE risk for project scheduling
- Prevent schedule padding by subjecting all schedule estimates to peer review
- Require that project sponsors who have schedule objections provide detailed, peer-reviewed analyses that support their objections
- Document schedule objections by project sponsors, and track historical data comparing final approved schedules to actual results to assess whether the objections were appropriate
This is only an example. UAE risk affects many other processes as well. Homework: find three more processes in your organization that are vulnerable to UAE risk, and devise mitigations. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Scope Creep and Confirmation Bias
- As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and
other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions,
is one of these.
- Why Scope Expands: I
- Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction,
has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?
- Why Scope Expands: II
- The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often?
One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
- Wishful Significance: II
- When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking"
was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations.
Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
- The Planning Fallacy and Self-Interest
- A well-known cognitive bias, the planning fallacy, accounts for many unrealistic estimates of project
cost and schedule. Overruns are common. But another cognitive bias, and organizational politics, combine
with the planning fallacy to make a bad situation even worse.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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