Book report: Primed to Perform – The Blame Bias


Reading notes by Yan Tougas

Studies have shown that people tend to blame individuals, and not the situation, when something goes wrong.  Teachers who teach in terrible conditions blame the students for not learning.  Managers blame employees who get hurt in dangerous conditions.  Salespeople miss their targets because they are lazy.  Coworkers cheat because they are unethical.  Because of this bias, few of us focus on improving the context, the culture.

We invest in hiring the right people and then underestimate the influence of our culture once they arrive.

In many studies, leaders were tricked into believing that their followers were exceptional individuals.  Because leaders believed that their followers could do no wrong, they assumed that the context was at fault when something didn’t go as planned.  The leaders then worked on the context (because, they assumed, there was nothing wrong with the followers).  Witnessing this work, the followers felt motivated and valued, and ended up excelling.  The Pygmalion effect is the antidote to the blame bias.  Once blame is eliminated, expectations increase all around.

Everyone is subject to this bias.  Before anyone can remove the bias from an organization, they must remove it from themselves.  The easiest way is to learn how to give feedback to others (“REAP”):

Remember to assume a positive intent.  Assume the other person means well.

Explain – Come up with 5 scenarios that could explain the behavior, scenarios that do not place the blame on the individual.  Consider that culture could have contributed to the outcome.

Ask the other person why they behaved that way (ask assuming positive intent).

Plan – Identify the root cause and create a plan of action

One of Toyota’s values is genchi genbutsu – the actual place, the actual part – reminding managers to go to the worksite to assess a situation in context and ensure a good solution based on objectivity and open mind.

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