It is remarkable how people can respond very differently to the same comments and events. It is important for managers (and anyone dealing with people) to understand why people differ. What might motivate one person to respond positively to being told something, while another person might become quite upset. One reason that some people might respond negatively to something that others do not is hostile attribution bias. This bias has to do with the fact that some people tend to be suspicious of others’ motives, and in cases where there is any ambiguity in a comment or action, a person with hostile attribution bias will assume the person wished them ill.
A Fist Full of Attribution Bias
A good illustration of hostile attribution bias can be seen in the Clint Eastwood Fist Full of Dollars “Apologize to My Mule” scene. Eastwood’s character rides into town on his mule, and some outlaws spook the mule by shooting as his feet. Eastwood confronts them, and when they laugh, he says “My mule don’t like people laughing. He gets the crazy idea they are laughing at him.” The idea that the mule believes others are laughing at him just because they are laughing gets at the basic idea of hostile attribution bias.
Attribution Bias at Work
Hostile attribution bias predisposes people to be suspicious of the motives of others. People with this bias might misinterpret a comment and respond to feedback with anger. This might result in a negative response to corrective feedback on the job. Such people might believe that negative comments about others were directed at themselves. They might seem overly sensitive and quick to anger. Research we have done in the workplace shows that people with hostile attribution bias are more likely than people without this bias to get into conflicts with others and engage in aggressive behavior toward others.
Dealing with Attribution Bias
Understanding that some people have had life experiences that lead them to have hostile attribution bias can be helpful in knowing how to deal with individuals who seem overly sensitive. If someone responds in a way that is surprisingly negative, it might be worth discussing with them why they had that reaction in an attempt to reach an understanding. You can’t change their bias, but open communication might help in avoiding unnecessary conflict.