The Difference Between Situationism and Dispositionism
When a company brings me in for a teambuilding retreat with the executive team or to help figure out why their departments have become silo’d there is one concept that helps me to bridge divides more than all others.
Think back to the last time that you can remember disagreeing with someone else’s actions. Perhaps they made a stupid decision that caused you more work. Maybe they acted like a jerk or a fool. Maybe you saw someone being wasteful or unconscious in their actions?
Did you feel that? Did you feel the judgement? The self righteousness? Did you hear your mind say, “I would never….”? Did it feel healthy? Did it feel true? How about helpful? Might your thought be nearly as counterproductive as their action? Might there be a way to reframe the situation that is both more loving and more productive?
In social psychology there is something known as the fundamental attribution error. This is “the tendency for people to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics of the agent (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining another person’s behavior” (wikipedia). We witness an action and assume it reveals to us who someone is. Scientifically, this is actually just wrong.
Ever take the Myers-Briggs test to find out who you are at your core? Ever take it again and get a different result? Perhaps you see where this is going? There is an ever growing body of research that demonstrates that ‘good people’ in difficult circumstances act like ‘bad people’. Essentially, what a scientific or objective perspective says, time and time again, is that we all do the best that we can given our resources at the time and the circumstances that we find ourselves in. More to the point, external factors (the situation) appear to control more than internal factors (disposition).
The classic example is the 1973 experiment by John Darley and C Daniel Batson where seminary students are sent off across their campus to deliver a lecture on The Good Samaritan story. This is a biblical tale about the one man who pauses to help a stranger moaning by the roadside. On the way to their lecture they will have to actually step over a man in distress, collapsed in a doorway. These students are, quite literally, dedicating their lives to becoming ‘good samaritans’. They have also had their intention brought to this story. In their shoes, would you stop to help the moaning man? Would it tell me something about who you are if you didn’t?
There is a twist. The students are broken up into three groups. Those in the first group are told that they are late for their lecture and better hurry. Those in the second group are told to hurry, their lecture starts in a few minutes. The third group is told that they have plenty of time, but should head over.
Can you guess who tends to focus on the man in distress and stop to aid him? 10 percent of the first group and 60 percent of the third group stop. If you were a fly on the wall watching the first group rush over the moaning man would you have assumed the person walking was insensitive? Might you have given them the benefit of your doubt? Clearly circumstances played a major role in their actions. It was not these students core disposition that determined their actions, it was the situation they found themselves in. Still telling yourself that you are different?
Any time that we judge someone we are saying that based on our observations we can tell some core truth about their disposition; who they are. In essence, we are saying that if we were in their exact position we would have acted differently. But what can we ever truly know about another’s exact position? Do we understand their entire upbringing? Do we understand the dreams or nightmares they had last night? Do we know if they are feeling nourished, loved and whole in their body mind and spirit? Do we know if they just received a crushing blow that has them crying on the inside, but lashing out on the outside?
Clearly we do not ever know the entirety of another’s truth.
So what happens if we instead work from the default assumption that someone’s ‘stupid’ actions are something that we might do as well given the exact same situation? What happens if we switch our default judgement from being dispositional, judging a person, to situational, looking at them as a product of circumstance? Might we approach others with more compassion? More patience? More understanding?
This does not mean that you must condone their actions. It does mean that you begin to make a distinction between their actions and them as a human being worthy of your respect. It means loosening your belief that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people as well as the idea that you are ‘one of the good ones’. It means reconsidering your partisan beliefs that Republicans or Democrats are idiots at their core. It means relaxing your judgement that the violence in others is a product of some innate insensitivity that you could never be guilty of. It ends up meaning that a lot of the self-righteous congratulations that we give ourselves for being great people needs to be reconsidered with both humility and compassion for just how much others have had to struggle through things that we take for granted.
You may be asking what the point is. What is this effort worth? Why give up my high horse?
With the leaders of an organization this switch is profound. If you focus on finding the failing individuals you fire people. Hiring and training new people is slow and expensive. It damages morale. It discourages risk taking. Most importantly, it fails to address the vast majority of the reasons why someone failed. If you focus on the situation you are compelled to build better culture and to build better systems.
Great leaders think strategically and help create structures that move everyone forward. Sometimes this means pausing to connect with an individual to better understand the details of what is happening in their life outside of the task at hand. We like to pretend that we can leave our personal life outside the office, but we all know that this is a lie. Other times we need to pause and think about all of the moving parts besides the one that failed. Was this person set up to succeed? Every chain has a weak link, but it is the buildup of stress in the system that should be the real concern. Replacing one link deals with the symptom. Failure can also be an opportunity to engage design thinking and create more robust structures and methods. Leadership requires the capacity to see not just individual parts, but the complex relationships that their interactions have. This is the situation.
When was the last time you blamed an individual?
What would have been a more elegant response?
Originally published at www.lifestyleintegrity.com.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.