Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 48;   November 28, 2012: Why Others Do What They Do

Why Others Do What They Do

by

If you're human, you make mistakes. A particularly expensive kind of mistake is guessing incorrectly why others do what they do. Here are some of the ways we get this wrong.
Caneel with a close friend (me)

Caneel with a close friend. I'm the one at the right. Note Caneel's expression of (barely) patient tolerance. That was pretty much the way things went with us. She liked me and I liked her (both very much), and we both put up with some things we didn't like now and then, because it was worth it. Way worth it.

When someone does something that causes you some inconvenience or discomfort, tolerance might be the best available choice. Why they did whatever they did might not make any real difference.

Although I'm currently dogless, I consider myself a dog lover. One dog in particular — Caneel, a golden retriever who passed on long ago — still occupies a warm place in my heart. Caneel taught me something about how people (myself, in particular) make mistakes when we try to understand why others do what they do.

I used to walk Caneel every morning in a park near home. Even though there was very little traffic in our neighborhood, I kept her on a lead until we reached the park, for safety. She'd pull me along, keeping the lead taut, sniffing everything as she went. I always assumed that she needed a little more obedience training.

When we would reach the park, I'd take her off lead, always expecting her to bound off immediately into the woods. She never did. She would sit, looking up at me, puzzled, tilting her head first one way then the other, as dogs do. I'd say, "OK, go!" And off she would go. I couldn't figure out why she would tug at the lead all the way to the park, and then, once freed, she needed encouragement to go run.

One day, I realized that her experience of the lead might be different from mine. She might have been thinking, "Rick put me on the lead so he won't get lost, and he wants me to pull him along to show him the way to the park." And when I took her off the lead, she might have been thinking, "Are you sure you'll be OK without me for a few minutes if I run off?"

Crazy as this explanation sounds, it fits the data. It might be right.

Often When someone does something
that causes you some inconvenience
or discomfort, tolerance might be the
best available choice. Why they did
whatever they did might not
make any real difference.
we assume that we know why others do what they do, but we're often wrong. Here are some of the many ways we get it wrong when we guess why others do what they do.

Premature conclusions
We reach conclusions before we have enough data to justify them. Sometimes, we reach conclusions with no data.
The Fundamental Attribution Error
We attribute to character what might better be attributed to circumstances. See "The Fundamental Attribution Error," Point Lookout for May 5, 2004, for more.
Presumed omniscience
We presume that we already know all there is to know about why someone might do what he or she just did.
Preferred explanations
We have biases and preferences among the many theories and conjectures about human motivation. We see what we expect to see, or worse, what we want to see.
Intimidation
We're afraid to question (or seek validation for) some hypotheses, because of the consequences of finding out that they're incorrect (or correct).

At some point today, there's a decent chance that you'll make one of these mistakes. Maybe more than one. If you do, don't ask me why. I have no clue why you do what you do. Go to top Top  Next issue: When Over-Delivering Makes Trouble  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenISHmLvwUKKmVVOoFner@ChactdrOPiYvWmgEpbGhoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

A variety of fruit choicesWhen All Your Options Are Bad
When you have several options, and all seem politically risky, what can you do? Here are two guidelines to finding your way to a good outcome.
Three-legged racing teamDevious Political Tactics: The Three-Legged Race
The Three-Legged Race is a tactic that some managers use to avoid giving one person new authority. Some of the more cynical among us use it to sabotage projects or even careers. How can you survive a three-legged race?
Lion, ready to spring, in Samburu National Reserve, KenyaUsing Indirectness at Work
Although many of us value directness, indirectness does have its place. At times, conveying information indirectly can be a safe way — sometimes the only safe way — to preserve or restore well-being and comity within the organization.
A sea otter and pupPower, Authority, and Influence: A Systems View
Power, Authority, and Influence are often understood as personal attributes. To fully grasp how they function in organizations, we must adopt a systems view.
J. R. R. Tolkien (aged 24) in army uniform. Photograph taken in 1916.Some Hazards of Skip-Level Interviews: I
Although skip-level interviews have their place, they can be dangerous, explosive, and harmful to the organization. What are the dangers?

See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The end of the line for a railroad trackComing May 30: Chronic Peer Interrupters: I
When making contributions to meeting discussions, we're sometimes interrupted. Often, the interruption is beneficial and saves time. But some people constantly interrupt their peers or near peers, disrespectfully, in a pattern that compromises meeting outcomes. How can we deal with chronic peer interrupters? Available here and by RSS on May 30.
Mohandas K. Ghandi, in the 1930sAnd on June 6: Chronic Peer Interrupters: II
People use a variety of tactics when they're interrupted while making contributions in meetings. Some tactics work well, while others carry risks of their own. Here's Part II of a little survey of those tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenscIPmoTAkIKnWEmqner@ChacQZyewKQghEuVBPzyoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Case
This Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Caseprogram outlines the steps necessary for deploying a program for rational management of technical debt. For many organizations, adopting a program for rationally managing technical debt entails organizational change. And unlike some organizational changes, this one touches almost everyone in the organization, because technical debt isn't merely a technical problem. Technical debt manifests itself in technological assets, to be sure, but its causes are rarely isolated to the behavior and decisions of engineers. We can't resolve the problem of chronically excessive levels of technical debt by changing the behavior of engineers alone. Technical debt is the symptom, not the problem. In this program we outline the essential elements of an effective business case for adopting a rational technical debt management program. But this business case, unlike many business cases, cannot be captured in a document. We must make the case not only at the leadership level of the organization, but also at the level of the individual contributor. Everyone must understand. Everyone must contribute. We explore five issues that make technical debt so difficult to manage, and develop five guidelines for designing technical debt management strategies for the modern enterprise. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.