Why did that interviewer talk so abruptly to me? How come I got such a poor performance review while the other guy - who actually sucked at the job - get a promotion? Why did that person across the room ignore me? How could I get such a low grade in the quiz? We have a tendency to find reasons and explanations for others’ behaviors, especially when it relates to us directly.
In most of my MBA classes we follow a stacked curve (also known as Gauss or relative scores) of rating scheme. That is, final grades of participants are based on their performance relative to those of others. And a fixed proportion of class gets the top, middle, and bottom grades. Invariably, at the end of the course, there are a couple of students who feel disappointed with their low scores. Likewise, in the context of workplace, someone or the other is always disappointed with the performance rating they receive. Besides the few inadvertent errors, often times the explanation is simple: an expectation-reality mismatch. Why does that happen?
While trying to explain other negative people’s behavior, we tend to focus on personality traits and ignore the impact of situational or social roles. For example, if Alex turns up late for an important client meeting, we would tend to create an impression that he takes his work too lightly, is disinterested, or has a problem with time management. And if this pattern repeats, our beliefs would get firmer. Instead of imagining that there may have been a traffic jam or an issue with the car, our first instinct would typically be to assume a fault in Alex’s personality. In Psychology, this is called the Fundamental Attribution error – that is, we over-emphasize dispositional rather than situational characteristics while explaining others’ behavior.
Related to this, an interesting dichotomy emerges whether one is an actor or an observer. Take the example of Alex again. How would he explain his own action of arriving late? Most likely using reasons as such ‘an unlucky day when all the traffic lights happened to be red’. So, the actor (in this case, Alex) tends to explain his failure or bad behavior using situational causes while the observer (us or his boss) may conclude that Sam has personality issues. And this difference in perceptions and attributions can cause feelings of hostility and conflict.
Next, let’s look at situations involving success. Imagine that you got an excellent review on your last project. What would you attribute the success to? Most likely, to your hard work, intelligence, diligence, etc. And how about explaining the success of another person – especially, of someone you don’t like? Common explanations would be that he got lucky, had a favorable boss, or ‘was at the right place at the right time’. In sum, here’s what happens. For our own failures, we blame the surrounding situations but when it comes to others’ failure, we attribute it to their personal inability. And when we are successful, we attribute it to the ‘goodness’ of our personality while we tend to justify others’ success using situational factors such as luck.
That’s not all. The issue that aggravates the expectation-reality mismatch is that we almost always think we are better than others - in our abilities and intelligence, in our looks, in how ethical we are, and pretty much in all domains. We tend to be egocentric – that is, we consider ourselves to be more central and important to issues than is the case. For example, when working in groups, we tend to focus on and remember our own contributions. As a consequence we end up feeling that we did most of the work. Similarly, most people consider themselves to be morally superior to others such that they report not indulging in unethical behaviors but predict that most others do so.
A lot of this behavior is automatic and has been built into us through evolutionary processes. It is part of
protecting and maintaining our self-esteem. Furthermore, society values people who are confident. No one wants to have a leader or hire an expert who says “I can be wrong” or “I don’t know”. At the same time, notice where this leads us. We feel more deserving than others. We feel we are unique and special. To our mind, others’ successes have happened by the stroke of good luck. And therefore, we end up being disappointed on finding out that we are not at the top of the game. We feel that life is unfair. What is needed is a healthy mix of humility and confidence. Breaking out of the ‘Me, myself, & I’ syndrome is difficult but necessary for one’s well-being.