Too often discussions of attitudes, values, and beliefs center on the person, making us blind to the power of the situation. Marketers advocate finding the right psychographic for a product. Psychologists talk about finding the person who is ready to quit smoking. Human resource managers focus on getting the right people on the bus, and change-management experts encourage us to classify people according to their readiness to accept change. As a consultant who specializes in succession planning and C-suite selection, I admit I have fallen into this trap too.
But Stanford psychologist Lee Ross didn’t. Instead, he developed The Fundamental Attribution Error theory by surveying dozens of studies in psychology and noting that people have a systematic tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape behavior. As Ross pointed out, the error lies in our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in. So often, what looks like an attitude problem is really a situation problem.Often, what looks like an attitude problem is really a situation problem. Click To Tweet
Therefore, tweaking the environment frequently alters beliefs, which in turn makes the right behavior easier and the wrong behavior a little bit less so. For example, last year I coached an executive in the construction industry who was having trouble prioritizing, which fuelled his anxiety. He simply wasn’t getting things done.
I asked Pete to walk me through a typical day so I could help him identify how he created situations that fuelled his anxiety. He said he opened emails first thing in the morning, which immediately triggered apprehension. So, first thing out of the gate, Pete felt overwhelmed, which caused him to have trouble prioritizing, which caused him to lose control of his day.
Pete said, “That’s just the way I am,” but I didn’t let him get away with that. Instead, I asked him to change his situation by deconstructing success he’d had previously. He admitted that in the past he had created folders for non-critical emails that he’d handle on certain days at certain times. In other words, he took control and changed his situation, which changed his beliefs about what’s important, which changed his habits. Some psychologists might call this “self-manipulation.” I choose to call it “self-regulation.” Either way, changing the situation can lead to the self-awareness that drives behavior change.Changing your situation can lead to the self-awareness that drives a much-needed behavior change. Click To Tweet
COVID-19 has changed the global situation, and many companies have reacted with their own altered realities. Organizations all over the world face the same questions:
“When can people safely return to work?”
“How can we maintain productivity while people work remotely?”
“How can we now outpace competitors?”
I have always resisted and encouraged my clients to resist work from home options because I feared a decrease in productivity. However, my best clients are not reporting any drop in productivity. Apparently, people who ordinarily spend two hours a day commuting have found renewed energy and focus. In some cases, productivity has improved with self-isolation. The environment changed, which changed my beliefs about working from home, and it seems the beliefs of others have changed too. Once the situation changes again, I anticipate a return to my original premise that most companies most of the time fare better when people go into the office.
As Pete demonstrated, people are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture—to the norms and expectations of the communities they choose. Also, he reminds us that if what we’re doing doesn’t work, we should quit doing that and get ourselves off behavior autopilot.