Not-manager: I have too much to do and am constantly interrupted by the other guys needing detail.
Manager: None of them have this problem, you’re a lazy whiner! Stop complaining and get your work done!
In March, we wrote a post entitled, “You Cannot Yell at a Board with Stickies on It.” That post described how using a Personal Kanban actually helped depersonalize work. Depersonalization here means that when something was delayed or difficult to do, the visualization helped us see that the work was the team’s issue and not a problem or reason to blame an individual.
Our tendency to blame people first is called Fundamental Attribution Error or Correspondence Bias. I like Fundamental Attribution Error because it’s very graphic and, in the work place, apt. The results of this are simple and devastating: when we are part of a team and a team member’s task is not getting completed or if their work is routinely poor, we will approach them with questions like:
“What is wrong with you? Why is your work not getting completed?”
Because we primarily visually focus on the person before us, we are looking for answers regarding that person. Since the person is all that is visualized, the person becomes the problem. Also, since interpersonal issues can be a rat’s nest to solve, we are actively not looking for reasons outside that person. We want the problem to be a personal defect and then order that person to solve it.
Nice, neat, contained, and seemingly logical.
Since the problem is rarely the person, but is more often a policy, procedure, communication breakdown, or random events – we then are not satisfied with the results. Rather than taking responsibility for their horrible personal behavior, the person says, “I’m not getting my work done because the graphic design manager is a jackass and won’t get me the materials I need or give me access to the people I need to talk to.”
This is valid, from their point-of-view. But the manager probably (not definitely, but probably) is not a jackass – the person you are angry with is also engaging in Fundamental Attribution Error. Soon we get a Fundamental Attribution Cascade and blame, disrespect, and distrust proliferates around the office.
As the “You Cannot Yell at a Board with Stickies on It” article suggests, most of these issues arise from ambiguities in communication. In other words, we don’t have clarity into what others are doing, they don’t have clarity into what we are doing, and that creates a ripe field of breakdowns in which to harvest a whole crop of Fundamental Attribution Errors.
In The Correspondence Bias, Gilbert and Malone say:
People care less about what others do than about why they do it. Two equally rambunctious nephews may break two equally expensive crystal vases at Aunt Sofia's house, but the one who did so by accident gets the reprimand and the one who did so by design gets the thumbscrews. Aunts are in the business of understanding what makes nephews act as they do…
In this case, Aunt Sophia presumably has some insights – or some clarity – into the actions and motivations of the boys. The key issue here though is the first sentence: People care less about what others do than about why they do it.
The question is … do we understand why they do it, or do we engage in fundamental attribution error. Without a kanban or something visual to take the focus from the individual and place it squarely on the situation-in-context, all we have to blame is each other. Basically, we get into bias soup here because we’re misattributing a problem in work flow with a person’s character or motivations.
The visualization of work provides clarity to the team to help diffuse this chaos.
Image by Christian at Redteam.