Do you have a people problem or a situation problem?

attribution errorAs a manager, it is likely that some of the biggest challenges you face are those that you consider to be “people problems.”

[I will not be discussing any of the myriad of technical dilemmas of managers – those that are centered on manufacturing methods, research, product development, engineering, technology, logistics, etc].

In this post, I am referring to the kinds of problems where the character of the individual is perceived to be the main reason for a performance issue.  For example:

  • An employee fails to follow work instructions, which results in rework.
  • A worker is injured when she takes an unnecessary risk to get the job done.
  • A number of employees are perpetually late when submitting expense reports.
  • An employee’s timeliness in completing some assignments is unacceptable.
  • Supervisors do not spend enough time talking to their employees.

If you were faced with any of the challenges listed, what would you do? Many of us would engage the employee in some form of training, coaching, counseling, and/or expectation setting.   In other words, we assume that the behavior is largely determined by the individual’s character, personality, or mindset. Unfortunately, we frequently overlook the power of “situations” in determining someone’s behavior.

A number of years ago, Stanford psychologist Lee Ross conducted a literature review on a large number of studies in psychology.  He concluded that we have a tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior. Ross referred to this tendency as the Fundamental Attribution Error.  We make this error when we attribute people’s behavior to the way they are (their character) rather than to the situation they are in (their environment).

One classic study was set up on a college campus to determine whether people could be influenced to contribute significantly more to a charitable cause, simply by altering their environment.

First, the researchers identified those who were generous (saints) from those who were unlikely to give anything at all (jerks).  They did this by polling everyone in a dorm that housed about one hundred students.  Each student was asked to assess which of their dorm-mates were most likely and least likely to make a donation to any charity.  With this input, researchers classified students into ‘charitable’ or ‘uncharitable’ types.

The experiment consisted of making the environment different for two equally split groups. Half of the students received a basic letter that announced the launch of a food drive the following week. These students were asked to bring canned food to a booth at a common student gathering place on campus. The other students received a letter with much more information.  Their letter included a map to the exact drop-off location, a specific request for a can of beans, and a suggestion that they think about a time when they would normally be passing by the drop-off point, so it would not be inconvenient for them to get there.

These two letters were randomly sent to the saints and the jerks.  After the food drive was over, the researchers compiled the names of students who had given food (and those who had not).

Overall, students who received the basic letter were not very charitable.  Only 8% of the saints donated.  And not a single one of the jerks contributed to the food drive.

The students who received the more detailed letter were much more charitable.  42% of the saints donated.  But here was the shocking outcome: 25% of the jerks donated food!

The significance of this finding cannot be overstated.  The researchers were able to get 25 percent of the least charitable individuals in the dorm to donate by simply making it easier for them to make a donation.  Remember, there was not a huge change to their situation – the letter they received just provided more specific instructions.  Their environment (situation) was only slightly modified.

Think about this.  In the study, you were 3 times more likely to get the desired outcome by changing the situation of the jerks (25% donated) than by relying upon the character of the saints (8% donated)!

Many other studies have proven that situational forces are powerful when determining a person’s behavior.

How can we leverage this knowledge?  Don’t overlook the person’s ability to do something.  By shaping their environment, we can make it easier to do the right thing and more difficult to do the wrong thing.

Let’s do a quick assessment on how we might change the situation to influence the behaviors for each of the examples listed earlier:

  • An employee fails to follow work instructions, which results in rework. (Provide clear, easy-to-understand directions with simple diagrams and/or photos).
  • A worker is injured when she takes an unnecessary risk to get the job done. (Remove any obstacles that could influence risk-taking.  Mitigate or eliminate any error traps – these are situations or conditions where it is more likely for someone to make a mistake).
  • A number of employees are perpetually late when submitting expense reports. (Make it easy to file a report by minimizing the number of steps, making data entry intuitive, or providing online access).
  • An employee’s timeliness in completing some assignments is unacceptable. (Establish clear priorities, set up self-reporting, offer resources).

Some human resource professionals advocate that employees be evaluated on two dimensions to determine their work performance:  Will and Skill.  The first dimension answers the question: “Are they motivated to do the job?”  The second dimension addresses the question: “Do they have the ability to do the job?”  And as we have seen, a person’s ability can be strongly impacted by their situation.

By altering the situation of the job to be done, we have the opportunity to significantly improve an employee’s ability to be successful. So before you make a Fundamental Attribution Error (and assume you have a people problem), consider that you may have a situation problem. If it is the latter, take action immediately.  Because you almost always have some control over the situation!


The Intuitive Psychologist and His Shortcomings: Distortions in the Attribution Process.  Lee Ross.  Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (vol 10), Academic Press. New York. 1977.

The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology.  L. Ross and R.E. Nesbett. McGraw Hill.  New York. 1991.

About David Galloway

David Allan Galloway is author of Safety WALK Safety TALK, instructor of an online course with the same title, leadership coach, keynote speaker, and President of Continuous MILE Consulting. He has over four decades of industry experience, with leadership roles in Operations, Research, Product Development, Quality, Engineering, Logistics, and Strategy.

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