Take a second to record your first reaction to this statement:
Your employee is 15 minutes late for a meeting.
What crossed your mind about this employee? Was it generally positive or negative?
Now try the same exercise with this scenario: you’re 15 minutes late to a meeting. What do you expect people to think about your tardiness? Go!
If you’re like most people, there’s an underlying theory on display in these scenarios called “Attribution Theory.” Being aware of it can not only make you a better boss, but it can build a better team. Here’s how it works:
Simply put, attribution theory says we all have ways we use information to explain events and behaviors in ourselves and others. There are two “lenses” we tend to look through (according to F. Heider, 1958):
Ironically named, this is where we attempt to explain the behavior of others. We tend to link other people’s behaviors with personality traits. In the examples above, if an employee is late for work, we’ll tend to associate their tardiness with personality or character traits like laziness, irresponsibility, etc.
In other words, not only will we assume the worst, we’ll also assume that’s the way they “are.” The hidden meaning is, they will continue to exhibit the same behavior over and over again.
This is how we explain our own behavior. In the example above, if we’re the late one, we will automatically attribute our tardiness to something outside ourselves, like a situation… or an environment.
For example, if I’m running late, it’s because the kids were misbehaving… or it was the dog’s fault because they didn’t do their business fast enough that morning. But it would never cross our minds that we are lazy or irresponsible.
The irony is this theory is always at work from both sides of the coin. Even though you know you’re late, you have a “good” excuse that was outside your control (e.g., dog, kids, weather, etc).
But do your employees see it that way? According to the theory, they’ve already made an assumption regarding your personality. Maybe because your the boss, they assume that you’re “above” being on time because you’re arrogant.
And supervisors, how many times have you written up employees while assuming the worst about their character… when in reality, there may be a legitimate circumstance outside their control?
Attribution theory gives us a tremendous opportunity, primarily because it raises our awareness of biases we bring in explaining behavior. It doesn’t make us mean (well, in most cases), it simply makes us human.
Perhaps this is why some of the most time-tested and enduring advice from the Bible tells us we should treat others like we’d like to be treated:
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev 19:18 NLT)
Loving your neighbor in attribution theory means you’ll give them the benefit of the doubt… until they prove otherwise. You’ll assume an external circumstance might have caused that negative behavior, just like you would for yourself!
Being aware of these biases allows us to explore how we operate and ask some great team-building questions:
- Do you automatically assume the worst in someone’s character?
- Do your work policies allow supervisors the flexibility to determine the difference between character flaws and circumstances beyond employee’s control… and deal with people while using judgment?
- Does your team operate on assumptions first… or questions first? (e.g., do you assume laziness, or do you ask questions to determine what’s really going on before forming opinions)?
There are probably other great questions that awareness will allow us to ask. What are some examples you can think of?