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:
- Self-Serving Bias in Organizations
- We all want to believe that we can rely on the good judgment of decision makers when they make decisions
that affect organizational performance. But they're human, and they are therefore subject to a cognitive
bias known as self-serving bias. Here's a look at what can happen.
- Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part II
- We continue our exploration of confirmation bias. In this Part II, we explore its effects in management
- Scope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control
- Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable
to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion
of control" — might provide explanations.
- 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?
- Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what
and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 18: High Falutin' Goofy Talk: III
- Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases, which I like to call high falutin' goofy talk. We use these phrases with perhaps less thought than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection of phrases and images to avoid. Available here and by RSS on July 18.
- And on July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
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As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important
lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product
development. Read more about this program. Here's
a date for this program:
- Ohio National Insurance, 1 Financial Way, Blue Ash, OH: July
Monthly Meeting, Cincinnati
chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. Register now.
- Ohio National Insurance, 1 Financial Way, Blue Ash, OH: July 17, Monthly Meeting, Cincinnati chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. Register now.
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