Bias number 40 is known as the defensive attribution hypothesis. This is a social psychological bias that leads people to attribute reasons and justifications for the occurrence of an unfortunate or unwanted situation to minimise the chances of it happening again.
Usually found in an observer of a mishap rather than the experiencer of a mishap, the observer tends to apportion blame for an incident towards the person or group of people most dissimilar to the observer. Psychologist see this as a strategy to mitigate against being a victim of a similar situation.
How? In finding fault with a particular aspect of the situation, the observer may be attempting to reduce the potential for being victimised by a similar situation by believing that the situation was preventable.
Psychologists also believe it is a way of building or protecting self-esteem by attributing blame for the occurrence to someone else, even if the facts show that the incident was unavoidable. It’s this “mistake” in thinking that gives defensive attribution its bias status.
Where does this show up? In various studies of sexual assault, psychologists have found that men are more likely to blame the woman than the man, and women are more likely to blame the man over a woman.
When left to your unconscious devices, of course it is easier to put yourself in the position of a person of the same sex and see it from their point of view. It’s a fact of life most of us know already. Having the studies bear it out makes it harder to dispute.
Here’s the million dollar question. Who is right and who is wrong? In the case of rape, it is argued every day that the sexual violation of another person’s body is a criminal offence. That act, in and of itself, has been judged wrong and is punishable by law. I agree.
What is often less clear are the circumstances that led to the incident itself. These are not always so cut-and-dried. There are often a lot of grey areas that surround the clear violation.
Why is this important? Let’s move away from the emotive topic of rape for a moment and use an incident that you may encounter more frequently in the office that lies at the source of emotion and conflict — diversity in leadership.
Much is written about the lack of women and minority leaders in business. Countless research reports from large consultancy firms make the business case for leadership and cultural diversity as a basis for business innovation and profitability. Despite the figures, there is still a large gap between the idea of diversity and the reality.
One area where it shows up most clearly is in the gender gap. Not only do women get passed over for promotion more often than men. When they do reach a certain level of seniority, they are often paid less than their male counterparts for doing the exact same job.
In this instance, who is right and who is wrong? According to the bias, men will more likely believe women are at fault for not meeting the requirements of the job or asking for a pay rise. Women, on the other hand, will blame men in leadership positions who have not placed enough emphasis on workplace pay equality.
Who is right? The truth is, both are right and both are wrong, and therefore neither is right and neither is wrong.
How can that be? I have personally worked with individuals, women mainly, who expect their employers to open doors, create opportunities for them and treat them equally. As a result, they may do their job well but they don’t take the initiative to ask for what they want. And guess what? They don’t get what they want!
Men in leadership roles look for signs of a person’s hunger for the responsibility and the challenge. They will give the job to the people who most demonstrate a desire to step up.
No surprises in either circumstance, right?
So, in this scenario, what’s missing is the understanding and clear communication of the qualities the current leadership looks for when developing succession plan. There's an opportunity here should you wish to take it. Men can be a great asset by giving people direction on how to get noticed, and women who show the hunger for responsibility usually get it.
Let me share a story with you from my own experience. When I started working in a PR agency, my line manager knew I was doing a good job, but the director didn’t see it. My line manager “coached” me to make sure the team director was aware of every article written about my client. He said that I had to do my own PR.
The penny dropped. It never occurred to me to tell other people what I was doing. I expected people to just magically notice the results I was producing. It was a big lightbulb moment for me.
It was definitely uncomfortable at first, until I realised that it gave my director the ammunition he needed to have powerful enrolment conversations with the CEO of the company about other projects. Pretty soon, his keyboard was inundated with the press coverage I created on behalf of our mutual clients. His view of me transformed as a result.
In any relationship, it takes two to tango. Ask yourself what it is that’s in the way of you taking full responsibility for your actions that created the outcome you’re facing. If it’s being passed up for promotion again, how can you show that you want more responsibility? If you're failing to fulfil on your diversity numbers, where can you capitalise on the opportunity to steer someone in a direction that supports their career goals?
When you notice yourself pointing the finger in blame, consider that everyone involved is to blame in some way. Ask yourself what it is the person you’re siding with could have done differently to avoid the situation.
You’ll stop taking sides in conflict, enabling you to help both parties own their part. People will recognise your brilliant leadership as a result.