What’s Really To Blame?


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I commonly communicate the fact that supervisors, managers, and business coaches focus on creating systems and processes, and then managing them, rather than just trying to educate and motivate employees. When I was responsible for all training and support operations for General Electric Appliances globally, it was a challenging process to make sure everyone, everywhere was capable, willing, and motivated to do a great job. In fact, I realized it was an impossible challenge to even begin thinking we can modify or change the behavior of tens of thousands of people. So, instead of spending time and energy creating a system to improve how people do their jobs and get them to perform tasks according to corporate requirements, I decide it was much easier to have a system that gives team members information and resources when they needed it most, on the job.

Of course we did not have wireless tablets and anything even remotely close to a “cloud” of information as we have today. In order to create a system that increased the odds of employees doing their job in a way that was recommended, I had my team create a series of three ring, pocket sized books that had every resource they could possibly need printed for them. As a confirmation that employees followed our recommendations, we modified our invoices to include checklists confirming they followed business guidelines and procedures. The excuses of “I didn’t know,” “I wasn’t trained,” “Never seen that before,” “No one told me,” etc. were no longer valid. As new products, ideas, and information came out, we sent out new books or replacement pages. We were managing the process, not the employee.

Many times managers look at deficiencies in employee performance as a problem with the team members’ attitude, motivational factors, or lack of knowing how. Rather than responding to the behavior by analyzing the tasks required, developing a solution that minimizes poor performance, and setting up a process that increases odds of winning, business leaders blame the employee and his or her personal attributes as the problem. This is called “Fundamental Attribution Error.” Blaming the person, and his individual characteristics, rather than addressing the process. In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error is the tendency for people to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics (personality) to explain someone else’s behavior in a given situation, rather than considering the situation’s external factors. It does not explain interpretations of one’s own behavior, where situational factors are more easily recognized, and can thus be taken into consideration. Conversely, from the other perspective, this error is known as the actor-observer bias, in which people tend to overemphasize the role of a situation in their behaviors, and underemphasize the role of their own personalities.

What does “Fundamental Attribution Error” mean in business? Managers and supervisors have a tendency to look at a team member and place blame on their inability to perform on the individual internal characteristics or personality. In other words, we believe a team member cannot do the job because of who they are, or how they think. I’ve had hundreds of employees in my past, and as you probably agree, people are different. We think differently, act differently, and respond to stimulus differently. This being the case, leaders should also recognize that different personalities respond differently dependent upon their environment, the tools they have, information that is presented to them, and how it is presented.

So how does this relate to the job? Beware of blaming people for things they really have no control over, or are simply doing what they think is right in the environment they are in, and with the tools they have.

What I recommend is to have a system or process that encourages, measures, and confirms specific tasks that limit the possibility of error, rather than hoping someone follows instructions and remembers everything they were told to do. I speak about this quite a bit in my workshops. Reduce or eliminate problems by focusing on the process rather than the person. Improve the process so that it is dummy proof and you eliminate the error. Don’t expect everyone to know exactly what to do every day, for every situation. Allow them the opportunity to have the information and resources to do the job as intended, at the time when it is most needed.

Frank Besednjak
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Posted In: Management

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