One of the most common and pernicious ways we undermine our own influence is by reducing complex human problems to a simple lack of the right motives. We assume that if people just cared enough, they would perform better. Social scientists call this knee-jerk diagnosis the fundamental attribution error. When people cause us pain, suffering, or even inconvenience, we quickly attribute their troublesome behavior largely to their nasty or indolent motives.
You can tell you're committing this error when your influence strategy is little more than a motivational speech—or its most emotional form: the verbal "ass-kicking."
For example, take a gander at the influence prescription offered up by Representative Joseph Cao (R-La.) to BP America President Lamar McKay during congressional testimony about the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Cao: "During the Samurai days, we'd just give you the knife and ask you to commit hara-kiri [suicide]. My constituents are still debating what they want me to ask you to do."
Looking for Someone To Blame
Apparently Cao believes a first step toward a solution might be to encourage the suicide of key actors. Earlier the same week, President Barack Obama suggested he was out talking to experts about the disaster so he would know "whose ass to kick." The implication is that the first-order solution is to find the bad people who did bad things and punish them for their malicious motives.
Let me be clear: I have no interest in defending the actions or safety record of anyone at BP (BP). Eleven people are dead, many, many miles of Gulf waters have become deadly to wildlife, and vast stretches of shores are now unusable. This is awful in the extreme. And we must find out what went wrong and develop an influence strategy that ensures it never happens again.
That's why it's so crucial for us to recognize our rapid descent into the fundamental attribution error. The future depends on us understanding correctly and thoroughly what happened, because our solutions will be constrained by how we frame the problem. Frame it as "whose ass needs kicking?" and your solution will naturally be reduced exclusively to punishing, reproving, or replacing. And while these actions may seem appropriate after thoughtful analysis, to begin with them as the sole focus or dominant objective undermines the quality of the search. If fixing blame eclipses fixing problems, the former often comes at the expense of the latter.
An Ancient Human Impulse
President Obama's statement is not interesting because the most powerful man in the world talked about ass-kicking; it's interesting because it follows the pattern of a profound human flaw that squanders our influence. It's not a cognitive pattern we reserve exclusively for horrific disasters—it's one we fall into when some insensitive oaf crowds our rear bumper in heavy traffic, when our life partner fails to remember our anniversary again, or when a colleague has the effrontery to disagree with us in public.
Years ago, I took my 10-year-old son along on a "trip of a lifetime" to Pebble Beach. He had recently taken up golf and was clinically giddy about the chance to play on the legendary course. The evening we arrived he asked if he could check out the pro shop, where I watched him gaze longingly at racks of Pebble Beach attire embroidered with the iconic cypress tree. Since the conference I was addressing was covering our lodging and green fees, I felt generous and offered to buy him the windbreaker he was drooling over. He hugged me endlessly with gratitude every couple of hours that day.
When we boarded an early morning flight to return home the next day, he sat down beside me proudly wearing this new (and shockingly expensive) windbreaker. I looked at him and smiled, then watched with increasing interest as he pulled out his tray and placed on it the box of french toast "sticks" he purchased for breakfast. Next came a plastic container of syrup sealed with tin foil. He pinched the corner of the foil and began struggling to pry open the syrup. The more he struggled, the easier it was to envision what would happen next. Sure enough, when the adhesive on the foil gave way, the entire cover tore loose, and three ounces of maple-flavored syrup ended up on his neatly zippered windbreaker.
Regaining a Sense of Control
I looked in horror at his syrup-spattered Pebble Beach jacket. My blood began to boil. I said nothing for a few seconds, giving him ample opportunity to recognize the costly damage he had inflicted on my generous gift. Nothing. No sign of remorse. Instead he picked up a french toast stick, sopped up the remaining syrup from the plastic container, and plunged it into his mouth while dribbling additional syrup onto the jacket.
In that instant, the entire situation was clear to me. He didn't care. He was self-centered, thoughtless, and had no appreciation for the second mortgage I'd be servicing to pay for this gift of love. The ingrate.
One of the primary reasons we reduce influence to butt-kicking is to restore our sense of control, which is a profound biological human need. Nothing undermines our sense of safety and security more than the belief that bad things can happen to us for reasons outside our control. The most primordial "bad thing" we've been genetically programmed to detect is another organism who intends us harm. Even our 10-year-old sons, spouses, or life-long colleagues are not beyond our suspicion.
An Error of Attribution
Decades ago, Melvin Lerner demonstrated that placing blame is a mechanism we use to avoid losing trust in our capacity to avoid pain. He asked 72 subjects to watch a colleague solve problems. When the colleague made a mistake, she appeared to receive a painful electric shock. Later on, Lerner asked the subjects to describe the colleague. Many essentially blamed the colleague for the shocks she received. They described her as lazy, dumb, unmotivated, etc. In essence, they said she deserved what she was getting. By committing the fundamental attribution error, subjects held onto their belief in a world where bad things don't have complex or murky causes. They could avoid getting their own butts kicked if they were honest, hardworking folks.
Unfortunately, the thinking process that let our predecessors deal with salivating predators isn't well-suited to increasing our influence in a complex world where mines explode, oil gushes unabated, and radical groups fly airplanes into buildings. It would be nice if just kicking the right butt solved the problem—but our desperate need to restore our sense of control actually decreases our influence.
The most influential people we have studied are scrupulous about avoiding the fundamental attribution error. They are not naïve. They realize people with truly malevolent motives exist. But they also keep in check the default tendency to assume villainy and instead explore complexity. They recognize that when people behave badly, it's often as much about ability as it is about motivation. In addition, no one behaves in a vacuum. Social and structural influences also creep in to affect our motivation and ability. In previous columns, I've written about the six sources of influence that shape our behavior. The best remedy for simplistic witch-hunting is a careful consideration of all six.
A Change of Strategy
Sometimes, adding even just a second source of influence is enough to slow our ancestral impulses. For example, as I sat next to my son on the plane, I managed to resist my immediate impulse to provide him with a verbal butt-kicking. The impulse was strong, and it took an act of will to withhold. I wondered whether other factors might be at play. Perhaps he was starving or in a hurry. Maybe he wasn't an obnoxious, ungrateful brat after all.
I pointed to his jacket and said calmly, "Samuel, did you see that?"
He followed my finger to the spattered fabric. His mouth went slack. He looked up at me with wide eyes and an expression of horror and shrieked, "Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!"
He sobbed uncontrollably and pleaded for help getting the stains out. I did my best to help. But more important, I learned a lesson. The problem wasn't that he was evil. The problem was that he was a normal 10-year-old boy—unabashedly inattentive and clueless—exactly as I had been at age 10.
When I saw him differently, my response to him changed markedly. And my influence increased. I solved the right problem by helping him salvage his expensive gift rather than the convenient one of punishing him for his sloppy oversight.
Are there bad guys in the world who need a good butt-kicking? Probably. But I suspect there is often more to our challenges than this knee-jerk solution will solve.