Perception, Bias & Interpreting Behavior

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  • 0:07 Perception and Bias
  • 2:30 Attribution and…
  • 5:08 Alternative Means of…
  • 7:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sherri Hartzell

Sherri has taught college business and communication courses. She also holds three degrees including communications, business, educational leadership/technology.

Have you ever wondered why two people can experience the same event, but give two different accounts of what happened? In this lesson, you will learn about how perception and bias play a role in how we interpret our world.

Perception and Bias

In today's complex and diverse organizations, it is rare that you will find two people who see the world in quite the same way. Each morning, you and I wake up and put on our own set of goggles that we use to understand the world around us. While we might have similar shades of goggles (yours red and mine pink), no two set of goggles are exactly the same. Every day, you will see your world in red, and I will see mine in pink. So, it would be appropriate to say that every individual lives in his or her own perceived world, which is, in some ways, quite different from the real world.

Perception, or the process by which individuals mentally organize sensory information in their environment to give it meaning, can help us understand why things might not always be as they appear. Perception is a process of observation and interpretation.

Another important concept for helping us understand our interpretations is bias. Bias is the unequal assessment between two alternatives, which typically puts one option in a favorable position and the other in an unfavorable one.

Perception and bias in the workplace are influenced by several factors that can shape and sometimes distort our view. Every employee has their own set of personal characteristics (goggles, if you will), such as their personality, life experiences, age, gender, culture, attitudes, values, motives, goals and expectations, that influence how he or she interprets the world around them. We also see those same personal characteristics in others and use them to form perceptions. Finally, the context in which the observation occurs is also important. When all three are taken into consideration, it is easy to see how quickly perceptions of the same thing can differ from person to person.

In the workplace, the perceptions people have about each other can significantly affect the manner in which an organization operates. In this lesson, we will continue to discuss perception and bias as it relates to how we interpret the behavior of others.

Attribution and Individual Behaviors

As we discussed, there are many factors that affect the way we interpret the world. As a manager, when you lack information, you might have to rely on your perceptions to make judgments about your employees' behavior. Social scientists use the term attribution to describe the process of assigning meaning to a behavior. In the workplace, we attribute both our own behaviors and the behaviors of others - sometimes using very different measurement tools, which lead to attribution errors. Before getting into those errors, let's first discuss factors that influence our attributions.

Attribution theory suggests that when we assess a person's behavior, we first try to determine whether it was caused by something internal or external to the individual.

Internal causes are in the control of the individual, and external causes occur beyond the control of the individual. For example, let's say that one of your employees arrives 20 minutes late to work. You have the option of attributing the tardiness to the employee's staying out late partying and oversleeping, which is an internal cause, or you can attribute it to bad traffic on the employee's commute to work, which is an external cause.

Have you ever noticed that we have a tendency to naturally assume people's behaviors are more often caused by their own decisions and not circumstances beyond their control? This is known as fundamental attribution bias, which asserts that we tend to underestimate the influence of external factors and overestimate the influence of internal ones. Ironically, we do the opposite when judging our own behaviors. Self-serving bias is the propensity for people to attribute their own success to internal factors, but blame external factors when they fail.

For example, Sally and Margie are on the same sales team. Both women have failed to meet their sales quota for the past quarter. Before speaking with Sally and Margie, their boss demonstrates a fundamental attribution bias by attributing the lack of sales to laziness on Sally and Margie's part, when in reality, it might have been due to the sluggish economy. When confronted with the lack in sales, Sally immediately makes a case for how she brought in 95% of the sales that she and Margie made. She demonstrated self-serving bias when she blamed the failure to meet the sales quota on Margie's lack of enthusiasm for the product.

Alternative Means of Assigning Meaning to Behavior

Any discussion of perception would not be complete without mentioning first impressions. There is a reason why people stress the importance of forming a good first impression on a date, interview or at a new job - labels we place on people the first time we meet them often remain. When our first impression perceptions of others are accurate, they can be beneficial in helping us understand how to best respond to those individuals in the future. However, when our perceptions are false, problems can quickly arise.

One of the most common problems that occurs with inaccurate impressions is stereotyping. Stereotyping is the process of making a generalization about a category of people and then applying that generalization to an individual member of that group.

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