Project Management And The Fundamental Attribution Error

Paul Naybour

Q: What stands between a Project Manager and established project objectives?

A: People.

It stands to reason, then: findings in the disciplines of Psychology and Social Psychology are as relevant to Project Management as any endeavour necessitating the management, leadership, and coordination, of objective-focussed teams and individuals.
Arguably, one of the most significant findings informing these disciplines and, therefore, project management, highlights the prevalence of a phenomenon known as the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’, and our susceptibility to it.
All too often, it reveals, we wrongly attribute behaviours to individuals: we put it down to their ‘disposition’, as opposed to acknowledging the influence of the ‘situation’ in which the behaviours occur. In this, it seems, we may be very much mistaken and may, in fact, be subject to a ‘fundamental attribution error’.
In 1961 Stanley Milgram demonstrated the capacity of ordinary citizens to inflict what they were led to believe were potentially lethal electric shocks on helpless victims; led on by the presumed authority and assurances of being held blameless by, literally, a man in a white lab coat…
A short foray on YouTube quickly returns both original footage and more recent emulations of this scenario. These experiments exposed the uncomfortable degree to which ‘situational factors’ trigger behaviours starkly at odds with an individual’s apparent ‘disposition’.
In 1971 Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University set up an experiment where volunteers were arbitrarily assigned roles as ‘prisoners’ or ‘warders’. The former were ‘arrested’ and handcuffed at home without warning then ‘incarcerated’, and found themselves, astoundingly, within the span of just one week, being systematically humiliated and terrorised, such that the experiment had to be terminated after just one week. Parallels to what occurred at Abu Ghraib abound.
Zimbardo’s subsequent book ‘The Lucifer Effect’ (2007), expands upon the power of a situation to trigger behaviours subjects subsequently struggle to explain. The situation, then, may have a lot to answer for. But if the situation can ‘turn the best to the worst’, the question is begged: can it not also ‘turn the worst to the best’?
In fact, we may of course turn this phenomenon on it’s head, and do! When coach, mentor, manager, leader, or indeed project manager, draw out brilliant ‘winning’ behaviours and performance, managing the situation or context for this to occur, is crucial!
I began this piece highlighting how, as projects managers, we rely on our teams: they are the interface between us and the ‘coalface’; the agents through which our projects objectives are realised, or lost.
In turn, wittingly or not, they depend on us; we fail in our responsibility if we do not conscientiously attend to these contextual factors, but it is a domain over which we can exert control.
Like landmarks in this domain, the APM BoK v6 ‘Definitions’, Section 2: ‘People’, spans the division between what is designed, and how it is implemented by people, because it is people that make all the difference between success and failure.
For example, simply asking how interpersonal skills, communication, and conflict are managed, exposes fundamentally empowering or disabling ‘situational’ factors for the people involved in a project. As project managers, we effectively empower or disable team members’ ability to perform to their full potential. Transactional leadership is by its nature more directive, and while this may at times be necessary, it carries a cost.
As Milgram and Zimbardo showed, when authority demands, and gets, mere obedience, the loss of resilience and agility attending autonomy may be too high a price to pay.
These insights encourage us to engineer a project environment or culture, where our people are nurtured to thrive – not as automata, inflexibly carrying out our will, but as engaged, resilient, agile and autonomous individuals: committed, mentored and empowered in their pursuit of project objectives.

About the Author

Gordon MacKay MAPM, MInstLM, holds MBA, BSc(Hons), and BA(Hons), degrees, and has been involved in both strategic consultancy and, as he now practises; in multi-disciplinary project management. For over twenty years, the author has developed and continues to refine his leadership competencies. He has also developed significant skills as Assessor / Verifier and Mentor for the National Vocational Qualifications Programme for Senior Management.

He is the author of “Practical Leadership” a book written as a result of his first-hand experiences and aimed at all who aspire to successful Leadership.


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