by V. S. Ravi Elangkoh
Do the professionals fare better?
Aren’t corporate leaders and HR professionals able to discern situational factors and assess people more objectively? Unfortunately, research results indicate otherwise.
A recently published research paper titled, “Inflated Applicants: Attribution Errors in Performance Evaluation by Professionals” by Samuel A. Swift, Don A. Moore, Zachariah S. Sharek and Francesca Gino1, reveals that fundamental attribution error is so entrenched in our decision making that even highly trained professionals such as hiring managers and school admissions officers are not spared from falling prey to it.
In the study by Swift, Moore, Sharek and Gino, 23 professional admissions officers were asked to review 9 candidates for MBA admission, who had graduated from 9 different schools that were equivalent in terms of quality and selectivity. The only difference in the schools was that some were “lenient” in terms of task difficulty, while the others were “harsh”. The outcome demonstrated that the admissions officers, including the seasoned ones, were biased towards candidates who performed better in easier tasks over those who performed less well in difficult tasks, despite being informed about each school’s task difficulty.
Doing a similar study, the researchers roped in 129 business executives to evaluate 12 candidates for job promotion. Once again, the results showed that candidates who performed well in easier tasks had a higher selection rate than candidates who performed less well in harder tasks.
In both the aforementioned cases, decision makers underestimated or overlooked the external factors that influenced candidates’ performance. If decision makers with substantial exposure and experience could inadvertently commit fundamental attribution error, then how much more careful would the rest of us have to be when sourcing for talent!
Minimizing fundamental attribution error
Now that we have a better understanding of fundamental attribution error, can we make a positive change in our daily conduct?
Yes, we can! On an interpersonal level, we can start by giving others the benefit of the doubt, in the same way we want others to do for us. The funny thing is that, if we ourselves commit something questionable, we know how to adeptly justify our own behaviour by pointing a finger to external circumstances instead of at ourselves. For example, if we had hired the wrong financial advisor without doing a background check, we would be quick to trumpet the candidate’s deceit rather than our own negligence in due diligence.
On an organizational level, the management could assess employees’ dispositional ability by taking into consideration Kurt Lewin’s attributional equation2:
Behaviour = f(Disposition, Situation)
Lewin’s attributional equation depicts that behaviour is a function of not only the person’s disposition (personal characteristics) but also of the situation (external circumstances). Understanding this will help us be more mature, accommodating and approachable leaders while endearing us to our peers and followers. So, shed your tinted glasses today for clearer leadership vision!
1. http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0069258 (full study published here)
2. Lewin, K. (1931). The conflict between Aristotelian and Galilean modes of thought in contemporary psychology. Journal of General Psychology 5: 141–177. doi: 10.1080/00221309.1931.9918387.
3. For a good explanation of fundamental attribution error, you may like to read this: http://changingminds.org/explanations/theories/fundamental_attribution_error.htm