You’re leading an important business meeting. Two people in the back row whisper in each other’s ear throughout the entire meeting. You’re convinced they’re talking about you. Are they?
You need an important piece of information to finish a report that’s due by the end of the business day. You’ve sent multiple emails to a team member asking for this information. She hasn’t sent it. You’re convinced she’s trying to sabotage your work. Is she?
You present your sales plan for the next fiscal year to your sales team. One of the senior members of the team remains quiet during the entire presentation, not uttering a word. You’re convinced he opposes the plan. Does he?
In the course of a leader’s day scores of situations like these present themselves, and we’re left trying to understand what they mean. Much of the time we commit what psychologists call attribution errors, or, what I have called in the title of this blog post, jumping to confusions. Jumping to confusions occurs when someone does something we don’t understand and, instead of asking about it, we draw a conclusion.
A conclusion that’s usually wrong.
My Most Embarrassing Attribution Error
One of the most embarrassing times I committed an attribution error was when our church was sending a busload of teenagers off to summer camp. I had showed up to wish them well and was flabbergasted by two sisters who were crying profusely, clinging to their mom before boarding the bus. “C’mom,” I thought to myself, “You’re high-schoolers. It’s just a week. Get over it.”
I then went into church and heard the announcement that the night before their dad had a heart attack and was in intensive care. He didn’t want his daughters to miss summer camp, so they were going anyway, but with heavy hearts. The pastor asked us to pray for the family, and I felt like a fool (eternally grateful that I had, for once in my life, kept my mouth shut).
Here’s what’s so destructive about attribution errors. Human nature being what it is, when we draw a conclusion without having all the facts, that conclusion is usually a negative one. The whisperers are talking about me. The team member is trying to sabotage my work. The senior sales representative is opposed to the plan. None of these conclusions may be true; yet when we draw them, our relationships are poisoned and the potential for constructive communication is cut off.
What Do Exceptional Leaders Do?
Exceptional leaders believe the best in their people and remain neutral in conflict. Believing the best in people means rejecting our natural, human impulse to fill a vacuum with negative content and trusting that the people we work with are as committed to the success of the organization as we are. Remaining neutral in conflict means when circumstances present themselves that we don’t understand, we simply ask about them without any preconceived ideas or fore drawn conclusions.
“But what if,” you say, “they really are opposed to the new sales plan?” Great question. Same answer. Believe the best in your people and remain neutral. Ask for information and seek understanding. Together agree on what’s needed for an effective sales plan (a report, a meeting), and move forward with respect and clarity. Continue the discussion until all of you are on the same page.
I know this may sound like a lot of work (It’s really not, but for the sake of argument let’s say that it is), what’s more time consuming is having another meeting to go over the same agenda items you covered in the last meeting, sending repeated email requests for information that are not responded to, and having to rework the sales plan halfway through the year because your senior sales rep wasn’t on board with it.
Situations like the ones we have been discussing are really gifts to leaders to more completely clarify the work at hand and more deeply develop trust and respect. Accept them for the opportunities they provide and refuse to inject your organization with the poison of jumping to confusions.