The Golden Rule of Influence – January 2022

To influence someone, you must first be clear about their motives; what drives them to act a certain way or prefer one thing over another. We can’t move forward with relationships until we assign motives for people’s actions. The same action can be seen as criminal or saintly, depending upon the reason behind the action. However, since we rarely have the chance to ask a person their intent, we must assign motives to others. Psychologists called this Attribution. Sadly, attribution is a flawed process. Humans are lousy at reading other people accurately.

There are two main attributes we assign to actions. Actions are either a product of circumstance, or of character. Which attribute you use to explain the actions of others will paint markedly different pictures of them, and affect how you choose to interact with them. Circumstances include resources (Does the person have access to other options? If so, could they afford them?), obstacles (Is there a reasonable barrier to taking action?), information (Were they given information that affected their decision?), and time (Do they even have the time to do what I am asking them to do? Are there other tasks that take priority?). When we consider the circumstances another person faces, we are using Situational Attribution.

Assigning motives based on character is a whole other ball game. Is the person smart enough to do things the way I think should be done? (Note: information and intelligence are two different motives.) Do they care enough? (A moral judgement.) Are they honest? Are they trustworthy? Assigning motives based on character is called Dispositional Attribution. When we assign others’ motives incorrectly, it is called an Attribution Error. And humans err so often when reading others that psychologists refer to it as Fundamental Attribution Error. Now, one might think that, since reading others wrong is so common, that it can’t be that harmful, but there is a reason we should all examine our own behavior in this regard. It has to do with the difference between the motives we assign ourselves and those we assign to others.

When subjects were asked to explain why they did certain things, people always talked about the circumstances that led to their decision. The reason for their actions always came down to time, resources, or some other outside force beyond their control. When people explained their own actions, the picture they painted made it seem like they not only made the best choice, but that they really had no other options. People almost always assign themselves Situational Attributes. Circumstances beyond our control are wonderful because circumstances take the responsibility for our actions off our own shoulders.

But what happens when people are asked to expain the actions of others? That is when the coin is flipped. When assigning motives to others, people default to character. “He did it because he is dishonest.” “She did it because she was afraid.” “They did it because they lack moral rectitude.” The actions of others were assigned Dispositional Attributes. And here is the kicker. During experiments, subjects would perform the exact same action as someone else, but assign situational attributes to themselves while assigning dispositional attributes to others. In short, we believe that our own actions are the reasonable outcome of the circumstances in which we live, but others’ actions are the product of bad choices, poor character, or lack of intelligence. It is certainly reasonable for us to view our own actions through the lens of circumstance. We certainly don’t expect people to explain their actions with, “I did it because I’m a loser!” But assuming others’ motives to be the result of character instead of circumstance is unfair, inaccurate, and unproductive.

The impact Fundamental Attribution Error has on our ability to influence others is significant. You cannot guide a conversation to a positive end if you misconstrue someone’s motives. If you mis-assign motives, you will appeal to factors that do not motivate the listener, or break the vital connection needed to have a positive impact. And, assuming the worst in others is a terrible way to build a relationship.

The Golden Rule states that we should treat others as we would have them treat us. The Golden Rule of Influence states that we should give others the same benefit of the doubt, and the same reasonable motives, that we give ourselves.

An expert on influence and a keynote speaker and trainer internationally since 1989, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop