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Attribution Error

attribution errorIf you do not know what attribution error is, once you do you will see it everywhere. It is when you overestimate the effect of personality and underestimate the effect of the situation in explaining social behavior of others. And what makes it worse is that when you are evaluating your own behaviors, you overvalue the situation and undervalue your own personality.

An everyday example of this is when driving the speed limit and someone speeds past you at 25 MPH over the limit and you attribute their behavior to them as a person rather than considering the possibility that something has happened that is encouraging aberrant behavior, such as a parent just died and they are rushing to the hospital. If you’re speeding, it is not because you are an idiot or because you never learned to drive it is because something is pressing you against a time limit in which you are willing to risk getting a ticket or possibly an accident to accommodate the time constraint.

Attribution error happens frequently in leadership roles and you may be blind to it. When someone completes a report and you are not happy with the outcome you may attribute it to their laziness. You may see one of your employees struggling and attribute it to them being stupid. And when you do something that you’re not happy with in your own behavior you’re more likely to attribute it to something outside yourself, a situation in which you feel you have no control. Attribution error elevates the likelihood of inappropriate conflict or passive aggressive behavior on the part of the person doing the attribution error.

In order to lower the amount of attribution error you can begin to ask questions of yourself. Asking questions to yourself may provide other explanations for the behavior of the person. This will help you lower your anger, frustration, or intolerance long enough to ask the person what is going on.

Try to avoid asking “why” when you decide to speak with your co-worker. Many people take “why” questions as accusations. You would be much better to begin with “what” or “how” questions.

Start to observe those around you and how often we create attribution error in our lives.


About the Author

Gary Cohen is a highly-skilled Executive Coach, Leadership Author, Trainer, and International Keynote Speaker. His clients range from entrepreneurial CEOs of the nation’s fastest-growing companies to executives of global 100 companies. He differentiates himself from traditional (psycho/therapeutic) executive coaches by bringing a vast amount of business experience as a former Founder / President of one the Nation’s Fastest growing companies. He is the author of Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions (McGraw Hill). Gary B. Cohen Full Bio

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