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Responsibility and Ownership - 25 October 2012

In the TV show Airline, there’s a great scene in which a man misses his flight by a matter of seconds. He’s especially furious because he was at the gate half an hour early. Of course, he blames the airline for ‘abandoning its passengers’ and demands an explanation from the staff.

During the conversation, it becomes obvious that even though he arrived early, he had walked outside just prior to his plane departing. When the stewardess asks him why he did so, he responds: “Whoa, whoa, whoa – wait a minute. That’s totally irrelevant.”

But it’s not totally irrelevant. And that’s because of something known as the fundamental attribution error. It’s a thought process that makes us believe that when we’re in the wrong, there’s a logical reason for it. But we're not so forgiving or understanding when we think it's someone else who has made the mistake.

As the airport scene continues, it transpires that the gentleman walked outside to have a cigarette just before his plane departed. The manager tells him that if he’d just stayed at the gate, he wouldn’t have missed his flight. The man storms off, unconvinced he was at fault – and still irate. The manager turns to the camera and says: “He made a choice to leave the gate area, and he has to have some responsibility for that.”

The fundamental attribution error surfaces in many situations. If we lose our house keys, it’s bad luck, but when our flatmate loses them, it’s due to carelessness. When we’re late for a meeting, it’s due to a cancelled train, but when a colleague’s late, it’s because of laziness.

In the workplace, the fundamental attribution error similarly blocks employees from taking ownership or responsibility. It can be overcome by understanding the internal factors versus the external factors at play. For example, if an employee hasn’t delivered a project on time, the internal factors represent the personal behaviour that directly caused the delay, whereas external factors reflect the general context. More specifically:

· Internal factors include personal effort, ability, mood, motivation, interest, control, stamina, and self-discipline.

· External factors include poor management support, slow technology, red tape, unreliable colleagues, bad luck, the task itself, and unreasonable expectations.

Your job as a leader is to plan for the external factors in advance so that your employees are given the best chance to perform well. But it’s just as important to hold them to account afterwards on the internal factors that prevented their success. Employees are inclined to apportion blame rather than take responsibility whenever they sense they’ve been spared an analysis on how they personally contributed to a failed objective.

As the airline manager said, they should “have some responsibility for that”.


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