It really was a dark and stormy night when my friend Sarah and I drove through the curves and hills on a backroad in Eastern Ohio. The kind of driving conditions that require extra concentration and make your body a little more tense than normal.
Another car came towards us with their bright lights on. I squinted and flashed my lights so they would adjust theirs. They did.
I was irritated by the other car making it harder for me to drive safely and said to Sarah, “When somebody’s driving along with their brights like that, don’t you think - what a jackass.”
She looked at me, confused, shook her head, and said “No.”
Sarah’s one of those nice people so I rolled my eyes in my mind and thought, “Oh please… everybody knows that guy’s a jerk.”
Another 5 minutes down the road, a second car came over a hill with its brights blinding our windshield. Sarah leaned forward in her seat and yelled, “Jackass!”
I laughed. I got the joke - and it was funny - even if Sarah looked a little foolish. Then I painfully realized her joking behavior is the actual behavior of the foolish voice in my own head sometimes.
A few minutes later, a car came around the curve and flashed its lights at me. I had my brights on. Busted. “Hmm,” I thought, “At least I’m not a jackass. I just missed my lights because I was being a good friend and focusing on the conversation.”
This story is an example of Attribution Theory. That’s when we attribute (or assign or give) a motive to someone’s behavior. The theory says we tend to assign internal motives to others’ bad behavior and external motives to our own.
For example, when I saw the bright lights, I assigned an internal motive to the driver. I went straight to that person's character by calling them a jackass. When I got caught with my bright lights on, I gave myself an out by assigning an external motive - it wasn’t my fault. The conversation, never mind my character as a good friend, caused me to have the brights on.
Attribution Theory shows up all the time at work. Think about typical internal responses you have to someone being late to a meeting (they are rude or bad time-managers or just plain selfish) compared to when you’re running late (I had to take that important phone call, there was something pressing that needed my attention).
Or maybe when someone hasn’t replied to an email (they’re a jerk for ignoring me, how unprofessional) compared to when you haven’t replied (I like to take time to write a thoughtful response, I have so many emails to get to).
Recognizing Attribution Theory at work gives us power to respond more competently and compassionately to ourselves and others. Sometimes behaviors (like bright lights, lateness or email response times) need to be addressed in ourselves and in others. If you start the conversation like you’re the good one in the story correcting the inept one (think about my knee jerk reaction to call other drivers “jackass”), you’ve set the conversation on a dishonest and unhelpful trajectory. If you can come to the conversation on even ground, recognizing that most of have to work on these things, you stand a better chance at positively affecting behavior and building the relationship.
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We offer these stories for leaders to use in meetings because shared stories build strong teams.