Overestimating Pilot Error

When attempting to explain someone else’s behavior, especially undesirable behavior, people very often attribute more control to that individual than he/she really has in the situation. In other words, people tend to over attribute a person’s actions to “pilot error.”

This is a term that often is used when an airplane crash is believed to be due to the pilot’s error rather than due to circumstances beyond his/her control (e.g., bad weather). Because this pattern of over attribution happens so often, Psychologists call this “The Fundamental Attribution Error.”

For example, Fred, the VP of Marketing, wasn’t setting any performance records. He seemed distracted, not engaged, and even cranky much of the time, He was late to the Leadership Team meetings, where he said very little and looked at his phone a lot. His performance was on the low side of fair, far below what the CEO knew he was capable of.

The CEO wondered what she should do about this situation. Fred seemed to have the potential to be a star performer when she first hired him, and he actually performed really well for the first couple of months. Why had he become so “lazy?” Did she need to replace him with someone who could perform better in the role?

First, we all know that, as a leader, you’ll never be any better than your team. If you don’t hire the right people, they’ll always limit the results you can achieve. At a minimum your team members need to be happy and positive people who have solid relationship-building skills.

However, as in most things, there’s a balance that’s required to achieve optimum individual performance. In this instance it’s the balance between individual control, or pilot error, and environmental factors. Is there an alternate explanation for Fred’s performance problems?

What if the CEO in this story is a “micro-manager?” Maybe Fred was a great hire who entered the organization full of hope and promise. However, he was so tightly supervised that over time he became frustrated and discouraged because he had no autonomy or control to express his ambition and creativity.

Psychologists call this “learned helplessness.” People can “learn” that no matter what they do, they can’t succeed at gaining control over their situation to get the outcomes they want, so they basically get depressed and give up trying.

This would explain Fred’s being distracted, not engaged, and even cranky (since depression is often anger and frustration turned inward on oneself). The Leadership Team meetings were over-controlled and left little room for individual contribution, so Fred often got bored and started playing with his phone.

The strengths and weaknesses of the top decision maker in an organization become the strengths and weaknesses of that organization, since he/she has the power and authority to control the situation. This is called “organizational culture.”

If you want a team of high performers (“A” Players), then there are two things you need to do:

  1. Attract them
  2. Keep them

The takeaway? If one of your team members is having performance issues, it’s important to know whether the problem is “pilot error” or the environment he/she is in; i.e., “organizational culture.” Then you’ll know what you need to do to remedy the situation.

High-performance habits

  1. At a minimum, make sure you’re hiring happy people who can work well with others.
  2. Have a good individual performance management system in place to monitor and enhance individual performance and success.
  3. Know what’s going on with both pilot error and cultural/environmental factors when addressing poor performance.
  4. Once you’ve completed your analysis, address this situation quickly so it doesn’t pull down the performance of your entire organization.
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