The Truth About the Fundamental Attribution Error: Why It’s Happening and What You Can Do About It
You’ve assigned an important task to a subordinate.
Automatic response: he is lazy, unmotivated, and you cannot rely on him for anything.
You have succumbed to a fallacy called the “fundamental attribution error.” When someone, other than yourself, fails to meet a standard, it is because of a character flaw. But when you do it, the situation you find yourself in has caused the failure.
This error is so fundamental because it is part of our cognitive make-up. Social psychologists have found that we automatically tend to attribute another person’s behavior to their dispositions or personality, while we explain our own behavior with situational factors.
The fundamental attribution error has important consequences. It can lead us to misjudge others. It can also lead us to overestimate our own abilities. Both are ineffective and unproductive behaviors. And we need to address both.
As a supervisor, it’s hard to attribute failures to the situation. If it’s an individual’s character flaw, we are not involved at all. If we more accurately attribute the failure to a situational factor, our guilt and involvement are implicit. We are partly to blame for the failure. And it is not easy to admit fault. Certainly not easy when there’s nothing on the line. Impossible when the stakes are high.
This fallacy forces us to address the wrong factor- a person’s character or inherent nature. It also prevents us from realizing our involvement in the failure. Overcoming this fallacy means doing just that. We need to realize that the cause can be situational and not necessarily due to a character flaw.
We also need to realize our involvement and responsibility in the situation.
When you’re quick to judge someone for their failures, ask yourself:
- What was the situation?
- What role did I play in the situation?
- What could I have done to set my subordinate up for success?
- Could I have made the situation any better beforehand?
Answering these questions can help you avoid the fundamental attribution error. It can also help your team move on from failures. Failures are a part of an ambitious organization. If the organization fails at some things, it means it is trying something it has never done. Doing only the things you’re good at doesn’t mean that you never fail. It means that you aren’t trying to move the organization forward. And to progress, you must accept failure as a cost of doing business. Just don’t increase the cost by succumbing to the fundamental attribution error. Easier said than done. But worthy of your time.