Context Matters: Overcoming Blame Bias

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  • November 21, 2016


I’ve talked before about the importance of company culture; here at The Learning House, we’ve spent the last year studying the principles of Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. A key principle of Primed to Perform is that of ToMo — Total Motivation. Simply put, how motivated are we to do our work well and to excel in our environment, as a company?

We’ve implemented strategies to measure ToMo, and we’ve created an organization identity document to help us always push toward being motivated to succeed. We recently measured our ToMo factor — a score developed by the authors of Primed to Perform — and it increased 20 percent. That might not mean much without any context, but what that means is that a higher percentage of our team feels motivated to perform, and they feel more motivated on an individual level. Not only that, we had a higher percentage of team members take the assessment, so the results are more representative of our company’s mood than they have been in the past. The score also compares favorably to companies like Apple, Southwest and Nordstrom, which all have high ToMo factors.

Blame Bias

The authors of Primed to Perform, Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor, point out that it’s easier to destroy ToMo than to create it because of a phenomenon they call “blame bias.” They say, “when things don’t go as planned, our natural but misplaced blame bias seduces us into always pointing the finger at the individual instead of considering the context in which they acted.”

In business and in life, things are constantly playing out in a way that is different from what we expect. Read that sentence again. Notice that I did not say that things are constantly going wrong, but rather are “different from what we expect.” This shift in language is key; it has allowed me to stop focusing on who I should blame for what went wrong and to focus more on how we, as a company, can engineer our processes and approaches to get the results we want and expect.

The first step in combating blame bias, according to Doshi and McGregor, is to acknowledge when it happens. For many of us, those initial accusatory thoughts are inevitable. Thankfully, they don’t have to be the measure of our leadership. We can overcome our blame bias by examining what about the context could be causing the observed behavior or outcome. Considering context dramatically changes next steps. Doshi and McGregor have a lot of illustrative advice on how to combat blame bias; I’d like to relay some of it to you.

The Blame Bias in Action

In the book, the authors describe a deliberately rigged game of Monopoly. One player started off with twice as much money as the others, got twice the salary upon passing Go and got to roll both dice while everyone else only got to roll one. That player (unsurprisingly) won and, when the game was over, the player was told how the game was rigged. The winner didn’t credit the win to the game being overwhelmingly in their favor, though; the winner saw all the skilled moves they made to win the game. The corollary here was that the other players were less skilled and deserved what they got.

Blame Rolls Downhill

The authors talk about psychologist Linda Beckman, who ran an experiment in education. She recruited UCLA education students to teach a lesson and others to observe and evaluate the lesson. Beckman engineered the situation such that it was stacked against the instructors: poor conditions, poor preparation and so forth. Afterward, the students took a test to evaluate what they’d learned, and the results weren’t good. When asked what went wrong, both the lecturers and the observers rolled blame downhill. The observers attributed 50 percent of the blame to the students and 32 percent to the lecturers. Only 18 percent of the blame was attributed to the circumstances, which were obviously sub-optimal. Even the lecturers, despite experiencing the poor circumstances first-hand, assigned 42 percent of the blame to the students.

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

One of my best friends from high school was on the show Average Joe during reality TV’s peak in the early 2000s. In one infamous scene, he cracked an egg on a friend’s head while his friend was trying to impress someone, saying, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” It’s a silly example, but a salient one. Would he have done that under normal circumstances? A show like Average Joe pits contestants against each other and pushes them toward outrageous and antisocial acts; the “game” is designed to create situations like that.

Every leader has limited time to spend on improving performance. Often, we’re quick to blame a particular employee if something goes wrong or we miss some target metric. We punish that particular person or, at best, find ways to help him or her improve, when in fact we should be focusing on the circumstances, the environment and the situation that created that outcome just as much. If a company’s culture encourages employees to make choices that aren’t good for the company, then the employees are being set up for failure.

The authors of Primed to Perform feel that we spend way too much time focused on hiring the “right” people and underestimate the influence our culture and strategies have on the success of the business. I’ve been trying lately, when something goes wrong, not to point the finger, but to ask my team what went wrong in the process or strategy and how we can address it in the future.

Indirect Motivators

Leaders and executives often focus on indirect motivators (pay, security, benefits, praise) over direct motivators (learning, skills, feeling good about yourself), because they think that’s what keeps their employees motivated. While it’s true that those motivators are important, using good pay and benefits as justification for ignoring the effects that a lack of direct motivators can have is damaging to company culture. It can lead to leaders blaming employees for being “lazy” or “incompetent;” why aren’t these employees doing what I need them to do when I’m paying them so much? The fact is, even a job that provides great financial and security incentives to employees can have an intolerable work environment, and that situation sets up employees for failure.

Leaders’ Expectations Become Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) did an experiment with four training officers and 105 soldiers. The training officers were given a Command Potential (CP) for each of their soldiers, a score based on other courses and tests and ratings from former commanders. They were told the CP score was predictive of performance to 95 percent accuracy. Each officer trained a mixed group: a third with high CP scores, a third with regular scores and a third with unknown scores.

At the end of the course, those with high CP scores outperformed in all areas, those with unknown scores performed in the middle, and those with average scores performed the worst. The differences were significant, but the CP scores had been randomly assigned, and the trainers had been tricked.

Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” The officers were predisposed to think well of high-CP students, so they gave them extra attention and consideration. If a high-CP student had a problem, the trainer didn’t blame the learner; rather, the trainer focused on the context. The same consideration wasn’t given to the other students, and those with average CP scores were often blamed for not being able to learn. Teams perform better when leaders believe they’re made up of high performers. The opposite is true as well.

Getting Rid of Blame

Blame bias researchers have found that people tend to believe that others are more likely to succumb to blame bias than themselves — 1.5 times more likely. Primed to Perform provides a framework called REAP to help overcome blame bias.

  1. Remember: When you are about to blame someone for an issue, assume positive intent.
  2. Explain: Before even approaching a team member, come up with several scenarios to explain the individual’s behavior. Do not assume the problem is with the individual.
  3. Ask: When approaching a team member, mention what you observed. Assume good intent, but ask why.
  4. Plan: Together, identify the true root cause and develop a plan to remedy it.

Toyota has a policy that translates to “the actual place, the actual part.” The idea is that, when something goes wrong, managers have to go to the actual worksite and observe the situation and the people there rather than assigning blame based on partial or faulty information, or on assumptions.

Blame bias is everywhere, and it’s a major detractor to motivation in companies and to healthy relationships. I know I am as guilty of this as anyone, often looking to people to explain problems rather than context. I think we could all benefit from assuming positive intent the next time our instinct is to blame.

How do you overcome your own blame bias?

About Todd Zipper

President & Chief Executive Officer

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