Tag Archives: Fundamental Attribution Error

Sources of Influence

Nature vs. NurtureCompetition

As parents of two precocious little boys (is there any other kind?), we often wrestle with the nature vs. nurture debate. There are days I pray it’s nature because I cringe at the thought that we’ve nurtured some of their less desirable traits. Of course, on the good days, it’s all about the nurture factor! Apparently this nature vs. nurture discussion doesn’t end when we reach legal drinking age. Last week’s post sparked an interesting debate about the source of influence. Here is the conversation between Tom Gosche and Dawna Watson:

 Dawna: “It seems to me the people with the greatest influence are the ones who are born with those great leadership qualities. I have yet to see an individual “learn” not just to be a leader, but to also carry all of the qualities that make a leader great. You can even see it in children as young as kindergarten age. Some lead with love and compassion, while others lead with intimidation and greed. As they grow the dynamics are still there and you find the exact same kids leading in the exact same manner, which of course carries into adulthood. I’d love to see a true example of someone who became a leader with great influence who wasn’t already born with that ability.”

 Tom: “I don’t know about that, Dawna. I have seen some of my best Presidents in BNI start out without those qualities, learn them and excel. Maybe those qualities were there all along, and it took a task or specific job to bring them out.”

 Essentially, the question is whether the constructive qualities necessary to be an influential leader are innate or can be learned. Before you read on, take a moment to decide if you think a person’s level of influence depends on nature or nurture. OK, now continue.

Influential leaders make it seem so easy to get things done that they must be “born with it.”  Think about someone you know either directly, in the media, or from history that is highly influential. For example, the social media “rock star” who posts a url within a Tweet, and hundreds of followers click on the link (@ chrisbrogan); or someone at work who has a coalition of loyal co-workers ready and waiting to support his every agenda.  Another example is the charity board member who convinces twenty people to join her at a $2,000 per plate dinner (during an economic downturn no less). What do these people and the person you’re thinking of have in common that makes them influential? For starters, each of these leaders has made a conscious choice to be more influential with the intention of making valuable contributions toward the greater good of their respective organizations.  Beyond that foundational focus, were all of these people just born to lead or did they have to work at becoming influential?  Befchicken-eggore we answer this question, let’s ponder a chicken and the egg question.

Which of the following statements do you think is most likely?

 A.    A person earns his/her role in an organization because he/she is influential


B.    A person is influential because of his/her role in the organization

Congratulations if you picked A! You’ve just made the Fundamental Attribution Error.  This is the psychological term for our tendency to overemphasize the casual importance of people and their characteristics and underemphasize the importance of situational factors. In other words, we tend to think it’s about the person and less about their situation. Returning to the nature vs. nurture debate, assuming a person’s “nature” is the root cause of his/her behaviors and attitudes is a form of the Fundamental Attribution Error. The good news is that influence, like life, is not so cut and dry.

The sources of influence are both innate AND learned.

Influence comes from three sources:  personal characteristics, the ability to take advantage of the situation, and a natural match between the situation and individual skills. Influence derived from personal characteristics is the one most tied to nature and the hardest to learn. Think back to the influential person you had in mind earlier. How would you describe him/her: Charismatic, trustworthy, humorous, kind, confident, respectable, and/or credible?  Charisma, for example, is a trait that is hard to develop. Some people are just more “magnetic” by nature.  Trustworthiness, on the other hand, is a trait that can be developed but it requires a serious commitment to a particular set of positive behaviors and attitudes and a general avoidance of negative actions. Doing what you say you’re going to do, holding private information in confidence, refraining from criticism, and being generous with genuine compliments are all ways to increase trustworthiness.

Like trust, the ability to capitalize on the advantages provided by a given situation is a source of influence that can be learned. Often, a leader’s success is attributed to “luck”; he or she stumbled upon the right place at the right time. Chances are luck had nothing to do with it. Influential leaders succeed because they actively seek out places and times to add value. When my husband, Gene, started as a sales manager for a local auto group, the company lacked a single point of contact for generating and responding to Internet-based prospects.  Instead of seeing more work and headaches, Gene saw an opportunity to help the business. He started taking responsibility for the auto group’s Internet marketing. Now, he is the Business Development Center Director. About a third to half of all sales can be tracked back to his marketing efforts. I share this story not to brag about my husband, of whom I am supremely proud, but rather as an example of how in our every day world’s we come across opportunities to improve our influence. When faced with these situations, we can either turn away because “our plates are full”, or we can embrace the chance to make a difference.

Possessing the skills required for a given situation is a source of influence that is a mixture of our innate abilities and our willingness to learn. Before taking on a leadership role, responsible professionals should honestly assess whether or not they have the capabilities required to be effective. If there is not enough of a match between personal skills and the setting to build credibility and earn trust, then the individual should have the humility to decline the role. A desire for personal gain, regardless of organizational consequences, is the most likely reason someone would take control of a situation without the skills required to succeed.  The ability to reduce people’s uncertainty regarding circumstances and broker relevant relationships increases a leader’s level of influence. This influence then enables the leader to garner resources, motivate key players, and secure stakeholder support.

 In order to ensure success, effective leaders tap into all three sources of influence. They leverage their natural attributes, remain alert for opportunities to add value, and step-up to the plate when their skills are well suited to the situation.

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