So far, in my current project, I’ve learned a lot of what not to do. This is about a very specific incident with broad implications. Let’s say that the factors involved surrounding the incident in question were the Perfect Storm for something to go wrong. These factors include but are not limited to: the Superintendent was new to the job, I’m new to managing these types of projects, they system we were working can be considered difficult for good results and there was a breakdown in communication all at the same time. In the meantime, closely monitoring the situation were regulatory agencies.
Definitions: So, what direction should I go from here? Let me define a few things first. Two types of attribution errors.
- Fundamental attribution error: tendency to make attributions to internal causes when focusing on someone else’s behavior (BLAME)
- Self-serving bias
- Prevents individuals from accurately assessing their own performance and abilities and makes more difficult determining real cause of failure
- Tendency to blame others for a person’s own failures associated with poor performance and an inability to establish satisfying interpersonal relationships at work and other social settings
How it went.
I was home, it was late and we were performing an operation in the field that required a test. The guidelines for the test were laid out by the regulatory agencies and we had to pass the test before we could move on. Up to this point we had been battling the system and ever increasingly it was throwing up red flags to our agency friends. Finally, that evening, I got a call that the test was successful and we could move on. So, I said “Great news! Move on!” But, I didn’t pay close attention to the results of the test and trusted the Superintendent to relay to me worthy information. The Superintendent was basing his interpretation of the results on similar previous tests in which this would have been a pass. But those previous instances weren’t in this same type of system so our assumptions didn’t apply. Also, unbeknownst to me and the Super, we were supposed to contact the gentleman at one of the agencies no matter what time the test was completed. Oops! Well, since word never got to us on that little stickler, we moved on.
Expert’s Input: Esther Derby, in The fundamental attribution error and accountability, discusses the negative implications if this attribution error but I want to quote what she talks about when you are accountable: “When managers do their part and create work systems that makes it easier—not more difficult—to get work done, they usually find that suddenly they have people who are accountable. Accountability is about negotiation and partnership; it is not a cudgel to blame people for not meeting unilateral demands.”
This happened on a Thursday night before a three-day weekend and most of the state workers were taking Friday off as well to make it a long lasting weekend. We were already close to completion after that last test and so by the time the long weekend was over we were done with that portion of the project. So, by the time Tuesday rolled around we were taking down equipment and getting ready for Phase-II; that’s when it started. The regulatory agencies finally caught up to us and were saying “Wait, what’s going on? Why is this portion of the project considered done when you didn’t pass that last test.” By this point there were a lot of emails flying around loaded with questions and answers. Both internally and between us and our agency brethren.
Expert’s Input: Max Wideman in Why is Good Project Decision-Making So Difficult? Lists the top fifty different biases that he got from Lev Virine and Michael Trumper. He defines: “Self-Serving Bias: The tendency to claim responsibility for successes rather than failures.” Thank you Max for defining what I failed to do above. I’m still jaw-dropping at all the biases that exists, and that there can be a top-fifty. Damn! There are apparently a lot of ways to be biased, so watch out.
Time to lay blame?
We weren’t trying to dodge anything, we were just running under assumptions that in this instance, were now not qualified. The Agency obviously felt otherwise and their feelings on the matter trumped our assumptions. By this point there wasn’t much we could do to go back and attend to the failed test. Phase-I had been completed and we had moved on to Phase-II. But, we still need to be accountable and that meant meetings. Our permitting department facilitated two different meetings; the first, a preemptive meeting and much smaller between myself and the Agency along with two gentlemen from permitting. And the second an all hands-on-deck meeting. The initial meeting went well enough and we got into the semantics of the situation enough that the ground work was laid for the second meeting. It was really good that the preemptive meeting took place. Because in it, the Agency now had a face to subscribe fault to. Not that they were finger pointing, in fact they were very conciliatory in trying to find a way through this mess. But let’s call it what it was, it was my fault.
Expert’s Input: In: Attributions: The Fundamental Attribution Error and The Self-Serving Bias, Bret L. Simmons hits on both attribution errors. There’s a great video but since I can’t show that here I do want to pass on what he says about each.
- The Fundamental Attribution Error: “… because it is very likely that their behavior was driven by external things outside of their control.”
- The Self-Serving Bias “… leads to inaccurate explanations, ineffective action, and interpersonal conflict.”
He hits it there when he says “…things outside of their control”. Was the situation ever outside of my control? Does it matter? And did I want to be inaccurate, ineffective, or create conflict?
Wrap it up already
The all hands-on-deck meeting involved three different agencies, the heads of three different departments and various underlings including myself. In the meeting we started from the beginning and went over all the nuances of how this occurred and how to keep it from happening again. Ultimately it was indeed a Perfect Storm for something like this to happen. The system we were working in, the assumption that prior practices would be allowed here, the inexperience of the Superintendent and myself, etc. And what it all comes down to, the bottom line of what I’ve been rambling on for ages now is that it was indeed was my fault. Why? Because I was in charge; plain and simple. And after everything was out there on the table, I fully admitted to the same. You see, it doesn’t matter that I didn’t know the rules, it doesn’t matter that I had someone in charge under me handling the situation, it doesn’t matter that we got away with it in the past. Each and every situation needs to be treated separately and with new vision, no assumptions can be made and you not knowing the rules is your fault. We wrapped up with possible solutions to the existing failed test and with a clear way forward so that it doesn’t happen again.
I’m not sure I tied that drawn out piece of prose to the attribution errors but I know that I want to steer clear of them and I feel this was a good start. It all turned out for the positive in the end and I learned a lot even though in the midst of that meeting I was to sole owner of a lot that went wrong. So, think about it before you lay blame, as a project manager, you’re responsible for everything beneath you. And, being accountable may just be the best way out for everyone involved.
Image Credits: Sketches by Author