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Boss: ‘You Suck.’ Now What?

Managing the Actor Observer Effect

Frank Harris’ book CONTEMPORARY PORTRAITS (1924) contains the following performance appraisal of a young British Army officer:

"(He) has been cau­tious to excess....He reads only to prepare his speeches and has no other artistic tastes.

On the other hand, he is easy of ap­proach and his heart is in his work; his lis­tens to every­one, even though he cannot grasp all that is said to him.

(He is) capable, industri­ous, and supremely courageous, but not a pathfinder or a great leader of men."

Subordinates who have suffered through negative performance evaluations can hope that Winston Churchill's commanding officer lived long enough to grasp the magnitude of his error.

How could Churchill’s boss have gotten it so wrong?

Actor Observer Effect:

Attributions are the root causes we assign to help explain the behavior of people observe. In the 1950’s psychologist Fritz Heider (2013) noted that actors tended to attribute the cause of their behavior to external forces beyond their control. Thus young Winston Churchill might agree that he was cautious. But he would attribute his cautious behavior to the constraints of his Amy role.

Heider went on to say that observers tend to attribute cause to enduring personality factors. In the Winston Churchill example, the boss writes that Churchill is not “a great leader.” In addition he lacks the intellectual ability to “grasp all that is said to him.” These attributions are not external to Churchill. They are attributions about Churchill’s enduring personality and genetic make-up.

There is research to support the Actor Observer effect. Saulnier and Perlman (1981) did a series of studies on how guards attribute prisoner behavior versus how prisoners attribute their own behavior. It supported the Actor Observer Effect. Campbell and Sedikides (1999) did a meta analysis of the Actor Observer Effect and concluded that a moderating variable was perceived threat. Thus the more threatening a subordinate might be to a boss, the more the boss is likely to fall into the Actor Observer trap.

In the Winston Churchill example, perhaps there was something about young Churchill that caused the boss to feel threatened. A December, 2014. Is that unreasonable? Terrance McCoy writes about the discovery of letters showing concern that young Churchill was attracted to the Moslem religion and expressed a desire to convert. (2014). Might a religious conversion be threatening to the British Army governing India and South Africa?

A more recent meta analysis by Malle and colleagues (2007) supports the notion that the Actor Observer effect is real but the magnitude of the effect depends on a number of situational variables. And one of those variables is how threatened the observer feels about the actor.

Implications for Leaders:

Most of the leaders we work with are confident about their abilities to identify high potentials. The Actor Observer Effect suggests that this self-confidence might be a mistake.

You might have a bias towards making personality attributions that are incorrect. The more personality attributions you make, the less likely you will think of training or coaching as a solution to the perceived problem. The logical conclusion of the Actor Observer Effect will be that the boss will keep that employee on a plateau of “solid citizen” without hope of promotion or find a way to terminate that employee when it becomes politically expedient, e.g. the next corporate restructure or downsizing.

The Actor Observer Effect cautions you to be humble.

An impartial 360 Survey is often a useful management tool. This is a confidential survey for how the subordinate is perceived by people reporting above, below and lateral. Be willing to put your attributions to the test.

After all, you do not want to be known as the boss who failed to spot the leadership abilities of the 21st Century’s Winston Churchill.

Implications for Employees:

The more threatened you are, the more likely you are to attribute the cause of your problems to issues beyond your control, e.g. nature of your job, poor leadership, rotten culture, poor technology, uncooperative colleagues, etc. The Actor Observer Effect warns that you may not fully appreciate your contribution to your problems.

As the perceived threat increases, the more you will look outside yourself for the cause of your woes.

Remember this wise Irish saying: when you point that finger of blame, three of your fingers are pointing at you.

If your boss does not offer an impartial 360 Survey, consider asking for one.

That is a more positive response than, “I disagree.”

You may be blind to your contribution to your own problems. An unbiased 360 Survey is a less radical next step when compared to putting your resume on the job market.


Campbell, W. K., & Sedikides, C. (1999). Self-threat magnifies the self-serving bias: A meta-analytic integration. Review of General Psychology, 3(1), 23.

Harris, F. (1924). Contemporary Portraits: fourth series (No. 272). G. Richards.

Heider, F. (2013). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. Psychology Press.

Malle, B. F., Knobe, J. M., & Nelson, S. E. (2007). Actor-observer asymmetries in explanations of behavior: New answers to an old question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(4), 491.

McCoy, T. “Family of Young Winston Churchill Feared He Might Convert to Islam.” December 29, 2014 Washington Post.…

Saulnier, K., & Perlman, D. (1981). The Actor-Observer Bias is Alive and Well in Prison A Sequel to Wells. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 7(4), 559-564.

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