The Inmates Are Running The Asylum

You are the manager and your employee, Bill, was due into work twenty minutes ago. “What’s wrong with this guy,” you wonder. Bill has been late before. “I don’t know what to do with Bill. He is lazy, coming in late all the time. Maybe he is just plain stupid. He is certainly unreliable.”

A week later, you find yourself running late for work. Later, when your boss asks you why you were late you tell her about the accident or construction or childcare issues that caused of your lateness. You were a victim of a situation.

This is a simple illustration of the fundamental attribution error which emerged from a 1967 experiment by Edward Jones and Victor Harris. The theory states observers describe problems in terms of the actors, while actors describe the problem as a function of the situation. In the above example, you, the observer, assigned attributes like lazy and unreliable to your tardy employee, the actor, Bill. Yet your situation was the problem when you later became the actor. The theory calls this the actor-observer bias.

This problem compounds when managers assign these attributes to a group of people. Maybe a few of your employees show up late in the same week. You might start referring to your whole team as “those lazy associates” or you might say “you can’t rely on anyone these days.” I recently heard a manager call his team the “general population”, a prison term to describe a group of inmates. I bet you have heard a manager use the phrase, “the inmates are running the asylum.” These are not just a sayings. When managers say things like this long enough they might start to believe them. Words matter because they affect beliefs and our beliefs shape our behaviors.

What if managers or companies assigned attributes to an entire class of people? I am reading an organizational behavior book called Ropes to Skip and Ropes to Know by R. Richard Ritti and Steven Levi, and they discuss this phenomenon. Not too long ago, almost all middle managers were white men in the typical corporate America office. Almost all of their secretaries were women. If you asked the men why the women were not managers, really pressed them, they might talk about how women just don’t have the drive to get ahead. They might say women are passive, emotional, and nurturing, and they lack leadership attributes.

In June, a group of women brought a massive discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart to the Supreme Court. The suit alleged Wal-Mart systemically paid women less and provided them fewer opportunities to advance. In a 5-4 split the Court ruled in favor of Wal-Mart. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the descending opinion, “Vacancies are not regularly posted…managers choose whom to promote on the basis of their own subjective impressions.” Maybe the actor-observer bias affected some of these subjective impressions.

My capacity to lead people is tied to my capacity to care about the people I lead; my ability to understand them as human beings. As a leader, I cannot fake this, and I cannot say one thing when the associates are not around and then another in front of them. They would see right through my phony behaviors eventually. Further, companies lacking authentic leaders run the risk of developing major cultural issues, like an us-against-them mentality between associates and managers, or worse, systemic discrimination.