It’s a red hot time in US politics as I write this blog. President Trump wants his US$5.7 billion wall and has shut down the government until he gets his wall. He needs it to secure the nation’s southern border against illegal migrants and terrorists. Alas, the Democrats don’t want a wall, they won’t agree to fund a wall, and they don’t believe a wall’s the solution to an alleged security threat.
If I believe Trump’s to blame for this crisis, I’m making a dispositional attribution to justify my criticism of him. If I believe there’s a border crisis I’m making a situational attribution, it’s the US political system to blame for the crisis. What I believe affects my attitude to the parties involved – who to blame and why. In leadership a leader’s beliefs about people and situations, who or what to blame and why, has a powerful impact on the organisation and its people. Schools and their leaders are no exception!
Attributions are driven by beliefs. In a school, for example, the beliefs of the principal or senior leaders about problematic teachers and parents, and contentious learning and teaching problems, will have important consequences for the school, its teachers, students, the school’s wider community, and leaders too. Therefore, it’s of critical importance that leaders are aware of the attributions they make about people and situations. Self-awareness is the first step, followed by a willingness to invite others to test the validity of your attributions before you make judgments about your people and workplace problems.
Be careful who you blame
You might attribute the problematic people you work with to their genes and upbringing. Blame it on the parents! On the other hand, you could attribute your workplace dilemmas and frustrations to those who hold different and competing views to yours on important issues. Or perhaps you attribute your darkest workplace days to the wider system, by it expecting you to improve results when you’ve already done your best? ‘They’ and ‘them’ are to blame for your leadership and organisational woes!
Spoiler alert! Respected research of leadership behaviour in organisations, including schools and education systems, reveals a different picture. Empirical research findings, particularly those of Chris Argyris and Donald Schön, consistently reveal that leaders themselves are often the source of their people and situation problems in organisations. It’s how leaders interact with others and go about tackling tough issues in their daily work that can be the source of the very problems they are trying to avoid and solve. How could this be?
The illusion of validity
We hold to our beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence, says eminent psychologist, economist and Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman. In his international bestseller about cognitive biases, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he explains that this creates the illusion that only our view about a problematic person or situation is valid and true. Alternative views held by others about the same person or situation are therefore invalid and untrue. Such illusory behaviour, particularly in organisational leadership, inevitably results in confrontation and conflict. Each party blames the other, the leader attributes their people problems to those who ‘get in my way’ or ‘get in my face’, while others attribute blame to the leader.
A source of this potential showdown is the unchecked validity of the leader’s attributions, what Kahneman calls System 1 Thinking. It’s fast, impulsive, often emotional and likely to make mistakes. System 2 Thinking is slow, more effortful, it’s deliberate and enables you to see and hear things you might have missed. He says leaders mostly use System 1 thinking, that they are usually unaware of this or may believe they’re a System 2 thinker when they’re not!
Here’s short video of Kahneman explaining ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ thinking, and their different results for leaders. (click on the image to start the video)
An effortful, slow thinking strategy, for example, is for a leader to treat their view about a problematic person or situation as fallible. The leader could check and test the validity of their view with relevant others by being open to different views, especially if there’s disconfirming evidence that doesn’t support the leader’s view. Checking and testing the validity of our attributions with a range of colleagues before making judgments about people and situations helps us to avoid mistakes that could increase conflict and confrontation.
Excuse me, your bias is showing
We listen most to information and views that confirm our preconceptions about people and situations. We listen to evidence and ideas that reinforce our beliefs, then toss out the bits that challenge our views. When new information challenges our beliefs, our first reaction is to doubt, resist or distort it. As a result, we think and behave differently from others depending on where we see the cause of things. What we believe affects our attitude towards the parties and issues involved in a situation.
A leader’s behaviour is influenced by what they attribute to the causes of a problem. Leaders have a strong tendency to seek out others who are more likely to confirm their biases. Typically, an agreeable group selected by the leader will be invited to decide a problem’s solution based on a limited understanding of its causes, usually aligned to the leader’s untested attributions about causation and solution. Such a ‘solution’ is probably doomed to failure or will have low impact because implementing agents feel it has been imposed on them. Other possible causes haven’t been taken into account, the solution isn’t well understood or supported, there’s low commitment to its implementation and success.
Attribution sharing for better solutions
A better strategy when tackling a complex learning and teaching problem in a school is for the leader to invite multiple explanations about the causes of a problem. For example, the leadership team could outline their causal explanations and reasoning, and ask staff if there are other causes that might have been missed. No cause is ruled out, but each is checked against evidence to test its validity and relative importance. After validity checking and testing, agreement is reached about priority causes that the solution should be responsive to.
The leadership team could next outline the proposed solution and demonstrate how it’s responsive to the priority causes of the problem. Staff are invited to critique the proposed solution for adequacy and impact. The leadership team review the solution in light of the critique, ensuring it’s a shared, agreed and well understood solution. This strategy helps school leaders overcome the risk of ‘confirmation bias’ when complex and often contentious learning and teaching problems are being addressed.
Be self-aware in your daily leadership work of the power of attributions you make about people and situations. Before you act on your attributions, check and test their validity with others, including those who may not share your view. Genuinely listen to what others say and be open-to-learning about their critique of your attributions. Be willing to revise, or even toss out, your initial attributions to avoid mistakes ahead!
Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kahneman, D. (2012). Thinking, fast and slow. London: Penguin.