The Fundamental Attribution Error: what it is and why you should know about it

There’s a funny little funk we all suffer from, which psychologists refer to as the Fundamental Attribution Error.

The fundamental attribution error is our tendency to attribute the negative behaviours of others to their character, while we attribute our own negative behaviours to our environment. In other words, we like to believe we do bad things because of situations we are in, but somehow we assume others do bad things because they are predisposed to being bad! In the same way, we often attribute other people’s successes to their environments and our own success to our character.

So when somebody cuts you off in traffic, you think, "What a muppet!" You don’t think (adopt compassionate, Zen-like tone), "I wonder what situation he’s in that’s causing him to drive so crazy." Never mind those times when YOU have driven crazily, it was almost certainly because of the situation you were in — like being late for The Most Important Meeting Everrr.

But don’t feel too squeamish - all of us suffer from this predisposition. In fact, it’s part of how we make sense of the world and learn to deal with the individuals we encounter.

However the FAE is a particularly prevalent gremlin when it comes to leadership and most often rears its head when it comes to a lack of performance in others.

The conversation in our minds might go something like, “you have not delivered on this piece of work because you are lazy and incompetent and just don’t care.” We are less likely to consider reasons for their non-performance that are environmental. It might be that the person lacks the right resources or, heaven forbid, we were not clear enough on our instructions, or didn’t delegate effectively in the first place.

Why is The Fundamental Attribution Error a problem in leadership?

It leads to poor quality decision making.

You’re more likely to be myopic in your assumptions.

It’s too simplistic.

You miss opportunities.

Most importantly, it can work against building trust, one of the most crucial ingredients in team performance.

What can you do to lower the chances of this little sucker taking centre stage in your leadership show?

  1. It seems obvious, but even being aware of the possibility that you are demonstrating the Fundamental Attribution Error when you get 'triggered’ or when things go wrong, is a good start.  Merely being open to the possibility of our own biases in order to reduce them is half the battle.
  2. Resist the temptation to jump to conclusions about the causes of issues. Dig deeper. Ask another question. Play Devil’s Advocate to your immediate conclusion.  Ask: is this a system or design issue? Is it a role definition issue? What other environmental factors might be contributing to this situation?  Is it even a combination of all of these? What else could be contributing to this pickle, other than behavioural disposition? Resist the temptation to become too quick and too simplistic in your diagnosis.
  3. Be less judgemental and more curious when it comes to situations and people, at least initially. One way to do this is to ask, “If this situation was happening to a good friend of mine (instead of to me) what advice would I give to them?  Put yourself in the shoes of the other party and view it momentarily from their perspective.
  4. Ask open and probing questions.  “What got in the way of x happening?” is far more effective in uncovering the real roadblock, than “WHY did this happen/not happen?” (which is more judgemental and more likely to result in defensiveness.)
  5. Spend time and energy building relationships and trust with all your key stakeholders. It's eye-wateringly obvious, but it bears repeating that treating a person as a human, not just a worker/customer/insert label and understanding more about what they like, dislike, and what lights them up, is always a good thing in business.

Assuming someone's behaviour is always a result of who they are and ignoring the context and situation in which the behaviour occurred is a cautionary leadership tale.

And if nothing else, reading this blog can mean you can casually drop the term Fundamental Attribution Error into conversation at your next Friday after work party and look clever.

Leave a comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.