The Problem: Telling Ugly Stories

Is it possible that everyday people with an IQ higher than that of a houseplant could be so hasty, judgmental, and unfair? Aren t most of us more careful, scientific, and thoughtful? In a word, no. We may not be as blatantly abusive as the managers in the software case, but when we face high-stakes problems, we re just as likely to come up with an unflattering story and act on it as if it were true.

Jumping to Conclusions and Making Assumptions

How can this be? During the 1950s and 1960s scholars conducted a lengthy series of research projects known as attribution studies. Their goal was to learn how normal people determine the cause of a problem. To uncover the thought pattern, they provided subjects with descriptions of people engaging in socially unacceptable behavior (a woman steals cash from a coworker, a father yells at his children, a neighbor cuts in front of you in the checkout line) and then asked the subjects, Why did that person do such a thing?

It turns out that people aren t all that good at attributing causality accurately. We quickly jump to unflattering conclusions. The chief error we make is a simple one: We assume that people do what they do because of personality factors (mostly motivational) alone . Why did that woman steal from a coworker? She s dishonest. Why did that man yell at his children? He s mean. Why did the programmers fail to conduct a test? They re arrogant , lazy, and selfish.

How can we be so simplistic and inaccurate? Most of the time human beings employ what is known as a dispositional rather than a situational view of others. We argue that people act the way they do because of uncontrollable personality factors (their disposition) as opposed to doing what they do because of forces in their environment (the situation).

We make this attribution error because when we look at others, we see their actions far more readily than we see the forces behind them. In contrast, when considering our own actions, we re acutely aware of the forces behind our choices. Consequently, we believe that others do bad things because of personality flaws whereas we do bad things because the devil made us do them.

In truth, people often enact behaviors they take no joy in because of social pressure, lack of other options, or any of a variety of forces that have nothing to do with personal pleasure . For example, the woman stole because she needed money to buy medicine for her children. Your neighbor cut in line at the market because he was tending to his two toddlers and didn t notice that he wasn t taking his turn . Your half cousin was hauled off to jail for holding up a convenience store partly because of greed; then again, maybe the slow and painful failure of his business contributed too.

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The Fundamental Attribution Error

Assuming that others do contrary things because it s in their makeup or they actually enjoy doing them and then ignoring any other potential motivational forces is a mistake. Psychologists classify this mistake as an attribution error. And because it happens so consistently across people, times, and places, it gets a name all its own. It s called the Fundamental Attribution Error.

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Naturally, when we spot an infraction, we don t always conclude that the other person is bad and wrong and wants to make us suffer. For instance, a dear and trustworthy friend is supposed to pick you up at the dentist s office and drive you home. She s 30 minutes late. What s going on? you wonder . Your first thoughts turn to a traffic jam or an accident . You re worried.

However, if the person has caused you problems in the past, you may jump to a different conclusion. Say she s often been unreliable. Maybe she constantly criticizes you. Worse still, you re standing in the pouring rain while your head is pounding with a migraine.

Under adverse conditions people more readily make the fundamental attribution error. During crucial confrontations the fundamental attribution error is as predictable as gravity: She s late because she s self-centered. She doesn t care about me. Just wait until she gets here! The more tainted the history is and the more severe the consequences are, the more likely we are to assume the worst, become angry , and shoot from the hip.

Choosing Silence or Violence


Not everyone who tells an ugly story angrily leaps into a crucial confrontation ready to exact a pound of flesh, at least not immediately. For many people it takes a while to become upset, smug, or self- righteous . In fact, when we began studying confrontations 25 years ago, we learned that the vast majority of the subjects we observed were inclined to walk away from broken promises, failed expectations, or bad behavior.

When we asked the subjects why they backed off, they explained that it was usually better not to deal with issues the first time they occurred. After all, many of those problems were anomalies. They weren t likely to be repeated, so why make a big deal and come off as a micromanager? Although there may be some truth to this, we also learned that most of the research subjects avoided taking action for fear of getting into a heated argument, which they assumed could lead to even more problems. Who could blame them for going to silence?

However, it s not as if choosing silence were a product of scientific inquiry. We back away from people because we conclude that they re selfish or rotten. Then we act on that conclusion as if it were the truth: Who s going to approach these folks? They re selfish and rotten! Therefore, we opt to stay silent.

No matter what the reason is, walking away from violated expectations and broken promises can be risky. When you see a violation but move to silence rather than deal with it, three bad things happen:

  • First, you give tacit approval to the action. If you see an infraction and say nothing, the other person can easily conclude that you ve given permission. You may feel that you ve given permission, and then, realizing that you ve given the action the green light, you find that it s harder to say something later.

  • Second, others may think that you re playing favorites: Hey you never let me get away with that kind of stuff!

  • Third, each time the other person repeats the offense, in part because of your failure to confront it, you see the new offense as evidence that your story about his or her motives was correct. You continue to tell yourself ugly stories, you fester and fuss, and it s only a matter of time until you blow.


Eventually, as problems gnaw at you, there comes a time when you can stand it no longer. You leap from silence to violence. A person interrupts you in mid- sentence for the hundredth time, and you finally blow a gasket. Your assistant misses an important deadline for the hundredth time, and you come unglued. Of course, you may not become physically violent, but you do employ debating tactics, give people your famous stare, raise your voice, make threats, offer up ultimatums, insult the other person, use ugly labels, and otherwise rain violence on the confrontation.

Surprised by your sudden and unexpected eruption, the other person thinks that you ve lost all touch with reality. Where did that come from? he or she wonders. But alas, the other person knows the answer. You did it, he or she concludes, because you re stupid and evil. You ve now helped the other person commit the fundamental attribution error about you, which feeds that person s silence or violence, and the cycle continues.

Rare is the sudden and unexpected emotional explosion that wasn t preceded by a lengthy period of tortured silence.

Violence Is Costly

When you move from silence to violence, you no longer keep crucial confrontations professional, under control, and on track to achieve a satisfactory ending. In fact, when you move to violence, the consequences can be nothing short of horrendous.

You Become Hypocritical, Abusive, and Clinically Stupid

Most of us have taken a variety of vows through the years. Our parents punish us for something we believe is trivial, and we vow never to do the same thing to our children. We watch our boss lose her temper and swear that we ll never act so ghastly. We see a friend walk away from a moral stance and promise we ll never be that weak.

Unfortunately, those vows rarely keep us out of trouble. When we observe others, tell ourselves ugly stories, and then fall under the influence of adrenaline, we become the very people we swore we d never be. Of course, nobody transmutes into a hypocritical cretin on purpose. Instead, stupidity creeps up on us. We tell ourselves an ugly story, become mentally incapacitated while under the effects of adrenaline , convince ourselves that we have the moral high ground, and move to either silence or violence while smugly proclaiming: He deserved whatever I gave him.

Sometimes when we re really dumbed down by the effects of adrenaline, we make a truly absurd argument: Sure I was tough on them, but you need to be tough with these people. They respond to abuse, not reason.

Actually, we don t have to be all that mentally incapacitated to make this argument. It s foisted on us almost every day, and with a straight face, no less. The fact that others need to be treated poorly to get them off their lazy back parts is sacred writ.

For instance, we praise coaches for their incredible records, and if they happen to be abusive, we actually attribute their success to their authoritarian and punitive style. Consider the Hollywood version of the 1980 U.S. national ice hockey team s miraculous Gold Medal victory. According to the movie, the coach abuses , insults, and manipulates the players because they need to be motivated and that is the way to do it. Apparently, the prospect of winning the Olympics isn t all that inspiring . He gets the players to hate him so that he can become the common enemy. That way they ll pull together as a team. Apparently the Soviet Union didn t constitute a real threat.

When the team wins the final match, audience members don t merely cheer the victory, they voice their approval of the coach s abusive methods . What a guy! people exclaim as they leave the theater. What a leader! Maybe we honor the abusive style of so many coaches and other public figures because their public actions lend credibility to our own private outbursts.

Their tantrums, taunts, and tricks support our own claim that it was okay to emotionally attack our teenage son because it was good for him.

Let s put this foolishness to bed. People don t deserve to be abused, physically or emotionally. It s not good for them . Yes, people should be held accountable. No one is questioning the need to act as responsible adults and expect others to do the same. But it is never good to abuse, insult, or threaten others. Friedrich Nietzsche once argued that what doesn t kill us makes us stronger. This little homily is often quoted. It s also often wrong. When it comes to emotions, abuse isn t a blessing, it s a curse.

When people gain success through abuse, they succeed in spite of their method, not because of it. For over five decades scholars have shown that abusive leadership styles don t succeed over the long haul, and over the short haul they re simply immoral. The greatest leaders , coaches, and parents we studied never became abusive. And during those weak moments when they may have briefly stepped over the line, they never argued that others needed or deserved it.

If you observe an infraction, tell yourself an ugly story, cut your brain power in half with a dose of adrenaline, and then do something abusive and stupid, don t say others deserved it or it was good for them. These words may sound logical when you can t see straight, or they may give you a warm glow when you re starting to question your pathetic actions, but the simple truth is there is no place for abuse of any kind at home, at work, or even on the playing field.

You Turn the Spotlight on Yourself

Imagine that you re on a flight across the Pacific. Seated nearby is a child who enjoys running up and down the aisle while screaming in a voice that could curdle milk. This continues for just long enough to turn the cabin passengers into a single seething entity with but one wish: to silence the child and return her to her seat. Suddenly, an older fellow next to you grabs the little girl by her frail arm and screams into her baby blues.

Guess what happens next. The passengers who once wanted to see the kid silenced now want to see the mean old man punished. In one swift motion the attention switches from the child to the abusive old guy. People are now sympathizing with the poor little girl. It takes only an instant to transfer goodwill.

The software development leaders learned this lesson the hard way. They might have approached the programmers with the angels on their side, but the instant they became abusive, they gave up the moral high ground. With each outburst, curse, and threat, they armed the original offenders with a good defense.

Of course, this doesn t mean that the original parties are off the hook, but it does mean that the leaders are now on the hook. Acting unprofessionally never earns you points. It takes the spotlight off the original offense and puts it on you at a time when you re on your worst behavior.

The Stories We Tell Help Us Justify Our Worst Behavior

Stories cause us to see the other person not as a human being but as a thing, and if not a thing, at least a villain. Stories exaggerate other people s legitimate weaknesses while turning a blind eye to our role. Stories help us see others as cretins and help justify our bad behaviors toward them, subtle or otherwise.

Here s the deal: You can t solve a problem with a villain. You can do that only with a human being. Before starting a crucial confrontation, use everything in this chapter to help you come to see the other person as a person , perhaps a person doing really rotten things but a person nonetheless. This difference is everything. Effective problem solvers set a healthy climate by avoiding ugly stories.

How do you challenge your story, especially when it feels so right? What does it take to avoid making the fundamental attribution error, becoming angry, and then establishing a hostile climate?

Crucial Confrontations. Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior
Crucial Confrontations
ISBN: 0071446524
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2005
Pages: 115

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