Performance Management - Avoid the Fundamental Attribution Error
Being masterful at giving feedback requires that managers are able to separate fact from fiction and reality from perception. There is a powerful principal discovered by social psychologist which often blurs the boundaries when people seek to answer the question of why someone engages in a particular behavior. The principle is called the fundamental attribution error and it relates to how motive is assigned to the actions of others. It the simplest turns the principle states that we assume people behave as they do because that is the way they are. If someone reacts in a short tempered fashion it is because they are a rude and intolerant individual. Conversely we do not apply the same standard when explaining our own actions. Our own short temper is explained as resulting from having a bad day, or being tired, or having a headache.

In his book Intuition, David Myers relates the results of an experiment conducted by David Napolitan and George Goethals in which subjects were asked to interact with another individual who was a collaborator in the experiment. The collaborator was instructed to act in either a warm and friendly or a cool and aloof manner. As might be expected the subjects perceived the collaborator as being either warm and friendly or cool and aloof depending on how they acted. What is surprising is that even when subjects were told before hand that the collaborator was going to be acting a role, the subjects still believed that the collaborator's real personality was consistent with the role they were playing. This illustrates how powerful the tendency is to take the behavior of others out of context.

Inferring the character and motives of others from their actions is not a bad thing to do. It is part of how we make sense of the world and learn to deal with the individuals that we encounter. The pitfall is that while we consider the circumstances when explaining our own behavior when it comes to the behavior of others we gravitate toward an explanation that attributes their behavior to their basic nature without considering the context and situation in which the behavior occurs.

For the manager who is responsible to assess performance and provide feedback, the message is a cautionary one. It is important to realize that committing the fundamental attribution error by assuming someone's behavior is always a result of who they are and ignoring the context and situation in which the behavior occurred is too simplistic. It is important to consider both the context and the situation in which the performance occurred. A normally polite individual can become rude and short tempered when trying to meet a tight deadline. This behavior can be disruptive and have a negative impact on the work team, the organization and even the customer. While this is clearly not acceptable performance and should not be excused, to focus solely on the issue of rude behavior is to miss the mark. The stress of the deadline that contributed to the behavior is the root cause of the unacceptable performance. Effective performance feedback from the manager will address the impact of rude behavior because that is the performance issue but also will focus the discussion of performance improvement around strategies for managing or eliminating stress. Management's responsibility is to produce results and focusing on root cause by avoiding the pitfall of the fundamental attribution error is one of the tools used by masterful managers.

Maret Maxwell PhD
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