If you were to setup shop outside the men’s bathroom on the floor where I work, and observed the comings and goings there for any length of time, a few observations would soon manifest themselves:
- The large silver button meant to provide assistance in opening the bathroom door to folks with disabilities gets A LOT of work.
- None of the people making use of this door-opening assistance are physically disabled
From this data, it would be both easy and rational to conclude that the population of men working on my floor and using that bathroom consists of a higher than normal concentration of guys who are either clinical germaphobes or laughably lazy.
Yet, reasonable as those conclusions about the people using that big silver button would be, they are both wrong and the product of “The Fundamental Attribution Error.” If you’re a Leader who must lead change in some way … which is a redundancy, I know … then understanding this error opens up a new, powerful tool for implementing changes that stick. In their fantastic book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain it this way:
We are frequently blind to the power of situations. In a famous article, Stanford psychologist Lee Ross surveyed dozens of studies in psychology and noted that people have a systematic tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior. He called this deep-rooted tendency the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” The error lies in our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in.
The people I work with are neither lazy nor abnormally afraid to touch any part of a bathroom door with any part of their body. They are simply operating within an environment which makes it extremely easy to have the door open itself by virtue of a visually attractive, giant shiny silver button.
Understanding the people you lead means paying attention to the environment you’ve created as much as the people operating within it. It requires eschewing the easy conclusions about them as people — judging them as inefficient, low performing, unimaginative, and the like — that fails to account for the impact of the situation within which they are trying to carry out their mission. Is your team’s output falling short of expectations because they don’t care enough, don’t work hard enough, or simply aren’t good enough? … or is it because they are tasked with doing too many different things, making them unable to focus their brain’s executive functions, and are equipped with tools and support systems that aren’t up to the task?
Look around at the situations your people are in, and identify the environmental silver buttons that are “shaping the path” (Heath & Heath’s term) of your organizational efforts. Default to thinking more highly of your people and more critically about the environment you as the Leader are creating, and you’ll be amazed at the doors that begin opening with little effort required.