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The surprising effect of traffic and bathrooms

“Sorry I’m late, traffic was nuts,” Sean said as he ducked into your team meeting. Irritated, you look up and nod, continuing with the department update. “Sheesh, he so unmotivated, he doesn’t even care.” you think. Finishing the meeting, you stop for a bio-break on the way to your bosses all-hands meeting, and find it’s closed for maintenance. You walk two flights of stairs to use another restroom and arrive at the meeting eight minutes late, where your boss glares at you. Finding a seat you think, “It’s not my fault, the bathroom was out of order.”

You’ve just fallen victim to the Fundamental Attribution Error – blaming what other people do (being late) on their internal traits (low motivation) instead of external situations (heavy traffic.).

You fell into another trap as well, the actor-observer bias. This happened when you blamed external situations (restrooms out of order) for outcomes (late to all-hands meeting) instead of any internal traits.

I fall for these two errors all the time. Anytime someone cuts me off in traffic, I exclaim, “What a jerk!” But if I cut someone off in traffic, I tell myself it’s because I’m in a hurry for an appointment.

These ideas are part of a field of social psychology called attribution theory, or “why we think people do what they do.” Notice I didn’t say ”why people do what they do,” but why we think they do things.

We are always reading intentions. If someone bumps into you unexpectedly, you’ll react differently if it’s your boss, your best friend, or your arch-nemesis at work. (You have arch-nemesis, don’t you?) The bump was the same, but the intention was different.

The Fundamental Attribution Error is so substantial that a 2015 study finds that it was a leading cause of Theory X management – the idea that people are inherently unmotivated, and only work because they must.

More on that tomorrow, but in the meantime keep an eye out for this error. I find it easy to catch other’s committing the mistake, and with practice, I’m catching myself doing it.

One habit which has helped is to ask myself, “What situation is going on that I can’t see?” That reminds me that our behavior is usually in response to external factors that other’s can’t see.

Do you see yourself committing these errors? What could be the impact?



About Marcus Blankenship

Where other technical coaches focus on process or tools, I focus on the human aspects of your Programmer to Manager transition. I help you hire the right people, create the right culture, and setup the right process which achieves your goals. Managing your team isn't something you learned in college. In fact, my clients often tell me "I never prepared for this role, I always focused on doing the work". If you're ready to improve your leadership, process and team, find out how I can help you.

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