I’ve written a few times about the interpersonal training component of the graduate program I completed. For the past few months I’ve been trying to track down the term for a particular concept we learned about.
The basic idea that I could remember was that are likely to attribute someone else’s behavior to their personality type (which is often a harsh judgment) while we are more likely to attribute our own behavior to the situation we are in (which is often a more permissive judgment). But I was hazy on the details.
I googled and searched and read through lists of logical fallacies and personality attributes and *finally* I found what I was looking for.
It’s called actor-observer asymmetry. Wikipedia explains (citations removed), “Actor–observer asymmetry…explains the errors that one makes when forming attributions about the behavior of others. When people judge their own behavior…they are more likely to attribute their actions to the particular situation than to a generalization about their personality. Yet when an observer is explaining the behavior of another person…they are more likely to attribute this behavior to the actors’s overall disposition rather than to situational factors.”
One example of this that I remember from school is to think about someone in a work setting rudely shooting down a colleague’s idea. If this person is you, you might explain it as “maybe she was having a bad day” or “she was frustrated by the long meeting they had been in.” Those are considered “situational” reasons. If the person in the story is someone else, you would be more likely to attribute the behavior to “he’s just like that” or “he’s always kind of a jerk.” Those are considered “dispositional” reasons.
What we were encouraged to learn from understanding this phenomenon was that you never know what is going on in someone else’s life. A colleague may snap at you, or be short, or belittle your ideas, but it might not be because of a deep-seeded lack of respect for you (the dispositional reason), it might because they had a fight with their son before work (the situational reason).
Interpreted this way, it’s a call for compassion at work, a reminder of which I can certainly use every so often. The idea is that if you can overcome this “asymmetry,” that is, look at your colleagues behavior through the lens of situational root cause rather than dispositional root cause, you can be more effective in interacting with them.
At my last job, I had a sign at my desk that said, “Be kind; Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (Total aside, but this phrase, one of my favorites, has a fascinating history.)
This is not to say, “Be meek.” When Microsoft’s CEO is urging women to let karma negotiate their salary, it’s not the time to be meek. There are toxic people, toxic organizations, and just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that colleague isn’t out to get you. But that does not mean that we cannot start from a place of being kind in the workplace.
Interestingly, after I graduated from my Masters program, a meta-analysis of psychological research determined that this phenomenon didn’t actually exist – at least not how it had been formulated. There’s now a more complex theory evolving that suggests that people do describe their behaviors differently than those of others, but in some different ways.
That aside, I do come back to the core thing that I learned from this concept: that of compassion at work.