Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 8;   February 21, 2018: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work

The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work


When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable.
Prof. Tom Pettigrew

Tom Pettigrew, Research Professor of Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The author of more then 500 publications, Professor Pettigrew has been a leader in research of racial prejudice since the 1950s. His research on the Ultimate Attribution Error is the foundation of our understanding of social prejudices. It's just as useful in applications in organizational behavior, and as described here, in project risk management. Photo courtesy Tom Pettigrew.

Attribution is what we humans do when we explain others' behavior. How we do it, and how accurately we do it, affect how we treat others. In the workplace, at the organizational scale, attributions affect strategy, practices, policy, and behavior. As Fritz Heider writes, "Of great importance for our picture of the social environment is the attribution of events to causal sources. … Attribution in terms of impersonal and personal causes, and with the latter, in terms of intent, are everyday occurrences that determine much of our understanding of and reaction to our surroundings." [Heider 1958]

Much depends on what we believe of others' motivations — so much that it's important to appreciate how common attribution errors are. For example, as individuals, we commit the Fundamental Attribution Error when we attribute another's behavior too much to character and personality, and too little to circumstances. See "The Fundamental Attribution Error," Point Lookout for May 5, 2004, for more.

The Ultimate Attribution Error (UAE), first identified by Thomas Pettigrew [Pettigrew 1979], is another error, made with respect to entire groups. By contributing to social prejudices, it significantly compromises workplace decision-making. Ethnic, gender, and age prejudices come to mind, but there are also some surprising effects.

Let's consider an example. The standard term for the attributor's group is ingroup. The group whose behavior is being attributed to some cause is the outgroup. Suppose Inez belongs to the ingroup and Oscar belongs to the outgroup. Inez commits the UAE when she over-attributes Oscar's (or the outgroup's) successes to circumstances, and his (or the outgroup's) failures to lack of talent, diligence, or foresight. She also commits the UAE when she over-attributes her own (or the ingroup's) successes to her own (or the ingroup's) talent, diligence, or foresight, and her own (or the ingroup's) failures to circumstances.

Inez's Our attributions are sometimes
correct, because the Ultimate
Attribution Error isn't
determinative. It acts
only to skew attributions.
attributions are sometimes correct, because the UAE acts only to skew attributions in favor of circumstances for the ingroup's failures or for the outgroup's successes, and in favor of degree of talent, diligence, or foresight for the ingroup's successes or for the outgroup's failures.

Failure to mitigate UAE risk can produce expensive mistakes. For example, some project sponsors dispute project managers' schedule estimates, because they believe that project managers "pad" their estimates. Project managers who supply honest estimates suffer most, but some others do pad their estimates, because they anticipate that their sponsors will reject them. The result is that many schedule discussions are based on false data and prejudice. Schedule performance becomes unreliable, and the organization cannot plan its resource needs with confidence.

To mitigate UAE risk in this situation an organization could take five steps.

  • Acknowledge that UAE is a risk, and educate all at-risk parties about the UAE
  • Require that project risk plans explain how they address UAE risk for project scheduling
  • Prevent schedule padding by subjecting all schedule estimates to peer review
  • Require that project sponsors who have schedule objections provide detailed, peer-reviewed analyses that support their objections
  • Document schedule objections by project sponsors, and track historical data comparing final approved schedules to actual results to assess whether the objections were appropriate

This is only an example. UAE risk affects many other processes as well. Homework: find three more processes in your organization that are vulnerable to UAE risk, and devise mitigations. Go to top Top  Next issue: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I  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


[Heider 1958]
Fritz Heider. The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1958. Order from Amazon.com. Back
[Pettigrew 1979]
Thomas F. Pettigrew. "The Ultimate Attribution Error: Extending Allport's Cognitive Analysis of Prejudice," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 5:4 (1979). Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrencszMHjBrVdJkDLGIner@ChacWlFhcqfvCOedGtpjoCanyon.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 Cognitive Biases at Work:

Computer-generated image of the third stage ignition for Mars Climate OrbiterConfirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part II
We continue our exploration of confirmation bias. In this Part II, we explore its effects in management processes.
A tire reef off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, FloridaManaging Hindsight Bias Risk
Performance appraisal practices and project retrospectives both rely on evaluating performance after outcomes are known. Unfortunately, a well-known bias — hindsight bias — can limit the effectiveness of many organizational processes, including both performance appraisal and project retrospectives.
The Bloomingdale's store in Stamford, Connecticut in January 1955Why Scope Expands: I
Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction, has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?
Louis Pasteur in 1885Wishful Significance: II
When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking" was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations. Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
Prof. Jack Brehm, who developed the theory of psychological reactanceCognitive Biases and Influence: II
Most advice about influencing others offers intentional tactics. Yet, the techniques we actually use are often unintentional, and we're therefore unaware of them. Among these are tactics exploiting cognitive biases.

See also Cognitive Biases at Work and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A tangle of cordageComing March 28: Four Overlooked Email Risks: II
Email exchanges are notorious for exposing groups to battles that would never occur in face-to-face conversation. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing dialog very difficult. Here's Part II of an exploration of some of those risks. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
A Mustang GT illegally occupying two parking spaces at Vaughan Mills Mall, OntarioAnd on April 4: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on April 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenCoVUciXkjvePGZEener@ChacynqGrjQKqclzFRVaoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, 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.

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
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!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
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.