The Fundamental Attribution Error

The Fundamental Attribution Error is a concept in psychology where one attributes others’ actions to their personality or character, while attributing the cause of one’s own actions to the circumstances they find themselves in. In other words, if I do something wrong, I couldn’t help it. If you do something wrong, you could’ve prevented it.

For example, let’s say I submitted a report late. I know it was because I had to deal with my two kids at home school, my sick dog, and the minor flood that occurred when someone left the shower running on high. Meanwhile, ask my colleagues about my tardiness and they might say, “I can’t believe she didn’t get it done. She had ONE JOB.” Or imagine you’re in traffic and someone cuts you off. What a jerk. But if you cut someone off it’s because you’re in an unfamiliar neighbourhood and didn’t realize the turn was coming up so quickly. You’re not a bad person or a bad driver. It was an honest mistake.

It’s too bad that many of us assume the worst when it comes to our fellow humans’ motivations. You have the choice, though, to believe that most people are good people trying hard. Yes, a few are good for nothin’ and just out for number one. But when it comes to your team if you think they’re trying to abuse the system, you have to start to question why you have them on your team at all.

Ironically, some leaders have learned they can’t trust their teams because they believe themselves to be “too nice.” When Susie was late handing in her report, I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to upset her. And when she left work early, I just let it slide. But now she’s taking liberties left, right, and centre! How could she do that to me when I’ve been so nice to her!

The “too nice” leader isn’t kind at all. They don’t set clear expectations, and don’t reinforce their expectations when they aren’t met. They’re effectively setting a trap for their employees to fail and, when inevitably the frustration reaches a breaking point and they blow up at the employees, their people feel like they’ve been blindsided. “If it was so important I stay until five o’clock, why didn’t he just tell me? Sheesh!”

There are two assumptions I’d encourage every leader to make:

  1. Most people want to do a respectable job they can feel proud of.
  2. If they aren’t meeting your expectations, it could well be because you didn’t clearly set or reinforce them.

Oh, one more thing. If I cut you off in traffic, there was probably a good reason. I’m quite a conscientious driver.

Let’s all find some opportunities to be kind, not just nice.

Tara Landes is the President of Bellrock, a change management and training firm based in Vancouver, Canada. If you found value in this article, don’t be selfish! Please share it with your networks.

Written By:
Tara Landes

Tara Landes is the Founder and President of Bellrock. She has spent over 20 years consulting and training in small to medium-sized enterprises. A sought-after speaker on a wide range of business topics, Tara has delivered workshops and seminars at conferences and industry associations across Canada. Tara obtained a BA (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and earned an MBA from UWO's Richard Ivey School of Business.

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