Before reading further, try to remember a crisis that surprised you or your organization. (Stop and really do this.) Now imagine that you are telling a close friend, someone from outside the organization, the story of that crisis: what happened, who did what, and what resulted. Your friend’s response would very likely be “Why didn’t anyone see that coming?” Keeping in mind the actual crisis, think through what your answer would be. (Again, please actually do this before reading ahead. Even better, write your answer on a piece of paper.)
Was your response something like one of the following?
- No one could have predicted what happened.
- The odds of its happening were so low that it didn’t seem worthy of consideration.
- It wasn’t my job to see the warning signs.
- There are so many possible crises at any given moment that we couldn’t reasonably have known that this was the one that would get us.
Or was your response something more like one of these?
- I didn’t examine what threats were confronting our organization.
- I didn’t think about how other parties could affect our organization.
- I didn’t ask others about what data were missing.
- I didn’t search hard enough for more options for my organization to consider.
Do you see the difference between the two lists? The first consists of external attributions. These explanations focus on factors outside your control; the problem was the situation, not you. In contrast, the second group consists of internal attributions for the failure, things you realize you could have done better. Most crises are due to both internal and external causes: you and the organization were in a tough environment fraught with unfortunate and surprising conditions, and you and your colleagues didn’t anticipate and manage the crisis as well as you could have.
A well-established social science research finding is that when we think of our successes, we tend to come up with internal attributions. We focus on what we did right to affect the ultimate result. By contrast, when we think of our failures, we tend to come up with external attributions; we blame others, the context, or circumstances beyond our control.” Executives who have a fantastic year often take personal credit for their success, or if they are more generous, they credit their management team. But executives who suffer severe setbacks are quick to attribute these results to economic conditions, market trends, or government interventions.
First-class noticers, however, are more consistent. Even when failures occur, they focus on what they did and, more important, on what they could do differently in the future. As a result, they avoid repeating their mistakes. It is this focus on self-improvement that allows us to learn from experience and develop the tendencies needed to become first-class noticers.