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Volume 18, Issue 8;   February 21, 2018: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work

The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable.
Prof. Tom Pettigrew

Tom Pettigrew, Research Professor of Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The author of more then 500 publications, Professor Pettigrew has been a leader in research of racial prejudice since the 1950s. His research on the Ultimate Attribution Error is the foundation of our understanding of social prejudices. It's just as useful in applications in organizational behavior, and as described here, in project risk management. Photo courtesy Tom Pettigrew.

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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Heider 1958]
Fritz Heider. The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1958. Order from Amazon.com. Back
[Pettigrew 1979]
Thomas F. Pettigrew. "The Ultimate Attribution Error: Extending Allport's Cognitive Analysis of Prejudice," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 5:4 (1979). Back

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