Beware of Attributions in the Workplace!
At the individual level, the more you understand yourself, the better you can predict or anticipate how you will behave in the future. The more you spend time analyzing yourself, the easier it is to pick yourself up if you are low and change your behaviour. If you think about it, if you didn’t understand or know yourself well enough, you wouldn’t know how to fix a problem or change the route a situation is going. It’s the same at the group level. To adjust the flow and coordination of a team, you must understand why the group is acting the way it is. The importance of a deeper understanding of human needs and interactions cannot be stressed enough.
To be able to dive deeper into this topic, a basic understanding of human psychology is necessary – specifically social psychology. One of the hardest and most significant challenges we face as human beings who live in complex societies is human interaction. Lay psychology or ‘common sense’ can get you so far in social scenarios until your intuition is prey to common urban myths about how we relate to each other and what works. As a manager, when you are having a problem between your employees, it is easy to attribute the misunderstanding and tension to the personality of the individuals rather than the situation that may be causing some to act out in misleading or unpredictable ways. This is a theory psychologists like to call the Fundamental Attribution Error. To think that the behaviours of an individual are solely due to their personality is a common mistake. We are all guilty of thinking this way and saying “so and so did this again, well not surprised because of who they are.” We are quick to judge the way people behave and attribute it to their characteristics rather than the circumstances they are currently facing. It is critical for people in leadership roles to understand that people are influenced by the social situation they are engaged in and are not driven entirely by their personality traits. To be a successful manager, you must recognize that you will have to analyze workplace conflicts on a much deeper level. You will have to distinguish between personality clashes and conflicts that are rooted in social scenarios.
Let us use an everyday example to explain this theory. Say your co-worker ‘Amy’ is known for being a little moody and impatient. Amy’s co-workers will then be used to attributing things she does to her moody and restless personality. If Amy walks into an important meeting where she is pitching her idea and is again in a pessimistic mindset, her co-workers (manager included) will quickly attribute her mood to internal causes: “Amy is her usual self, what can we do”? No one will blame her actions towards the present situation. No one will ask: “I wonder if Amy is irritable because she is nervous about her big pitch!” This is the problem. As a manager who wants to understand their employees better, you must acknowledge that a large part of our behaviour as human beings will be a reflection of the situation in which we find ourselves in – this situation will explain our behaviour.