In his book ‘Give and Take’, Adam Grant explains how the responsibility bias works. Let’s start from our private life with a simple question: ‘Of the total effort that goes into the relationship, from making dinner and planning dates to taking out the garbage and resolving conflicts, what percentage of the work do you handle?’
Let’s say you claim responsibility for 55 percent of the total effort in the relationship. If you’re perfectly calibrated, your partner will claim responsibility for 45 percent, and your estimates will add up to 100 percent. In actuality, psychologists Michael Ross and Fiore Sicoly found that three out of every four couples add up to significantly more than 100 percent.
Partners overestimate their own contributions. This is known as the responsibility bias: exaggerating our own contributions relative to others’ inputs. It’s driven by the desire to see and present ourselves positively. But there’s another factor at play that’s more powerful: information discrepancy. We have more access to information about our own contributions than the contributions of others. ‘We see all of our own efforts, but we only witness a subset of our partners’ efforts’ writes Grant.
This responsibility bias is a major source of failed collaborations. Professional relationships disintegrate when entrepreneurs, inventors, investors, and executives feel that their partners are not giving them the credit they deserve, or doing their fair share.
Recall that the responsibility bias occurs because we have more information about our own contributions than others’. The key to balancing our responsibility judgments is to focus our attention on what others have contributed.
How can you handle the responsibility bias?
All you need to do is make a list of what your partner contributes before you estimate your own contribution.
Studies indicate that when employees think about how much help they receive from their bosses before thinking about how much they contribute to their bosses, their estimates of their bosses’ contributions double, from under 17 percent to over 33 percent.
Try yourself: bring together a work group of three to six people and ask each member to estimate the percentage of the total work that he or she does. Add up their estimates, and the average total is over 140 percent. Ask them to reflect on each member’s contributions before their own, and the average total drops to 123 percent.
Adapted from Adam Grant – Give and Take, A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Viking (Penguin Group)