Don’t Fall Victim to the Fundamental Attribution Error
When my friend Josh is driving and is second in line at a red light, he’s quick to honk the horn (and exclaim a few choice words) if that driver doesn’t immediately go when the light turns green. But when he’s the first in line at a red light, he often waits a few seconds after the light turns green to make sure there’s no traffic in the intersection as the light changes. When the second driver in line honks at Josh, he gets annoyed because, after all, his decision to wait is a smart one.
That’s the gist of the fundamental attribution error: We readily attribute our own behavior to the situation. We know what we’re doing, and we have a good reason for doing it. But we attribute other people’s behavior, especially if it disappoints or annoys us, to flaws in their personality or character. We fail to consider that there may be a perfectly good explanation for their behavior. No, theyare thoughtless, incompetent, or unprepared.
The fundamental attribution error can play out in negative ways at work. For example, imagine a manager who attributes an employee’s declining performance to having become lazy, when really it’s that the person is preoccupied by a sick family member. Or a team member who declares a customer inconsiderate because she “refuses” to quickly reply to his texts, when the customer is actually overwhelmed by demands from a new manager.
Of course, sometimes other people’s behavior is indeed because they’re idiots! But if you want to avoid habitually falling victim to the fundamental attribution error, start by acknowledging that there’s more to most situations than initially meets the eye.
Then, before jumping to a conclusion about a particular situation, try to see circumstances from the other person’s perspective. Consider possible explanations for the person’s behavior that are based on the situation, not the person’s character. If appropriate, ask the person directly for an explanation of the behavior.
And (unlike Josh) when the car in front of you is a little slow in starting up when the light turns green, be open to the possibility that the person has a legitimate reason for waiting (other than texting, of course!). You can use those interminable seconds to reflect on how successful you are at overcoming the fundamental attribution error.