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It’s Not My Fault: The Fundamental Attribution Error

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Let’s talk mistakes. Screwups. Errors in judgement. Stumbles, trips, and missteps. Everybody has them. But whose fault are they, really? It turns out that deciding who or what to blame may be the biggest failure of all.

The study of human psychology is not much more than a century old, yet it has already provided countless profound insights for both individuals and organizations. (Even though some well-researched science facts are totally ignored.)

One of the most dramatic examples has to do with the term attribution. This is defined as what we think is the cause of something. To whom or to what do we attribute a particular outcome?

Crumpled Paper

© Flickr user photosteve101

Psychologists are particularly interested in the difference between perception and reality. And in truth, everyone should be laser-focused on this distinction. No matter what you do as an employee, a manager, a business owner, a non-profit leader, or just a citizen, figuring out what’s really happening versus what we think is happening is tremendously important.

That’s why researchers are particularly interested in attribution errors. That’s when we think we know the cause of something, but we turn out to be wrong.

Here are some examples:

  • We think we got sick due to food poisoning from a restaurant, but it was actually caused by undercooked food from home.
  • We think someone else got the promotion because they have been flattering the boss, but in truth they have been working hard and making great progress.
  • We think that sink is filled with dishes because our roommate is lazy, but we forgot that we promised to do them.
  • We think we got a discount because we were friendly, but it turns out the cashier just made a mistake keying in the order.

Each of these situations is about misconception. Part of the problem is that usually people who make judgements don’t have all the details. But what’s more important is that our concept of others is different than our own self-concept. In fact, this issue is so comprehensive to the human experience that psychologists call it the fundamental attribution error.

The best definition I’ve found comes from an article by Dr. Mark Sherman which explains why we don’t give each other a break:

When we see someone [else] doing something, we tend to think it relates to their personality rather than the situation the person might be in.

Or in other words:

  • When others make mistakes or excel, it’s because of who they are.
  • When we screw up or when we’re victorious, it’s due to current circumstances.

You see this happening all of the time. A piece from Fast Company on the fundamental attribution error tells the story of Amanda:

She was astonished when she got some performance reviews back and found that her team complained that she wasn’t listening to them. What else did she need to do? She had an open-door policy! She investigated some more and discovered the root of the problem. When people came to see her, they sat across from her desk. And when they were talking, sometimes she’d catch a glimpse of an email coming in. And sometimes she’d take the opportunity to reply while the employee was talking. No big deal, right? Just multitasking! But, understandably, the employees felt like she was being rude and not listening.

So, one afternoon, she rearranged her office. Now, when people came to see her, she had to turn completely around to face them. Her computer was totally out of sight. No more email temptation.

Six months later, she solicited more feedback from her direct reports, and her communication scores had soared. So what changed Amanda’s character so dramatically? Nothing. She was the same person. But her situation—her environment—was different, so she acted differently.

Here are some more examples:

  • An employee reports a workplace safety concern, but as the messenger they are blamed for the problem and end up taking the heat.
  • Both a worker and their manager miss several errors in a report, but the manager mutters that the employee didn’t see them because they were “careless” while their own error was due to a “stressful work environment.”
  • A vendor doesn’t return an email and we think they are disorganized. We neglect to return an email but it’s because there’s an IT problem.

It should be obvious why the fundamental attribution error makes our list of significant cognitive biases in the workplace. Not only does the word “fundamental” appear in the name of this phenomenon, but the problem is widespread and has serious consequences.

How do you stop it? Treat other people as if they are like you. Assume they are trying their best. Give them your full attention and trust. Fight the urge to judge and dismiss. If you do, everyone will benefit.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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