Technology enthusiast, passionate about building great teams and scaling organisations
Think of the countless times you labeled someone at work as “lazy, boring, incompetent, stupid, irritating, biased, reckless, rude…”
The lens with which you see others makes all the difference - are you quick to judge or adopt an attitude to understand?
How your co-worker reacts to a situation is shaped by their own temperament, past experiences and the current circumstances. Their behaviour in one area does not reflect who they are as a person, what they value and even how they would be in another aspect of their work.
A missed delivery deadline does not make someone incompetent, mistake is not a sign of negligence and declining meeting invite is not an act of rudeness.
Yet, we assume that’s all there is to this story.
Snap judgments without careful consideration rule our workplaces and our lives. We are quick to stamp people as “this is who they are” without taking a moment to step back and analyse the situational factors that contribute to their behaviour.
The less we know about someone, the easier it’s for us to label them and then stick with those assumptions.
This cognitive bias called fundamental attribution error or attribution bias makes us attribute a person’s behaviour to their character without taking into account the limitations and constraints within which the person might be operating.
We jump to the conclusion that their behaviour is a reflection of “who they are” without taking time to analyse the situation that makes them behave in a certain way.
The mistake we make in thinking of character as something unified and all-encompassing is very similar to a kind of blind spot in the way we process information.
"Psychologists call this tendency the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), which is a fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting other people's behavior, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of situation and context." - Malcolm Gladwell
Consider this - two new engineers, Jim, and Molly join Larry’s team, their manager. They are both assigned a mentor.
Molly’s mentor takes real interest in her work and helps her with the multiple challenges she faces in the workplace. Under her guidance, Molly is able to quickly ramp up and starts contributing to the team. She pushes her first code to production within a week of joining.
Jim’s mentor is super busy with a critical project that’s due in a month and he’s not able to spend much time with him. As a result, Jim struggles with his work and is unable to make any significant contribution even after 3 weeks of joining the team.
Their manager Larry looks at their output after one month of joining and immediately concludes that Molly is a “champ” while Jim is “incompetent.”
Without making an attempt to understand the real reason behind the difference in their performance, Larry makes an attribution error. He applies personal attribution while ignoring the impact of their mentors on their output.
Larry’s ignorance of the fundamental attribution error makes him carry over this label to other aspects of Jim’s and Molly’s work. Without realising, he trusts Molly with more responsibilities and appreciates her work while keeping simple tasks for Jim with the assumption that he won’t be able to do them anyway.
Molly continues to grow in her role while Jim is left behind feeling frustrated and wronged. Jim eventually leaves within just a few months of joining the organisation.
Molly and Jim were both talented. While Molly’s initial circumstances helped her rise, Jim’s early setback prevented him from putting his strengths to work.
This is not unusual at work. People make one small mistake, lose their credibility at work and are never given another chance to prove their worth or worse their initial perception sticks with them irrespective of how hard they try to change it.
Our confirmation bias along with fundamental attribution error makes us seek signs that confirm our stand while ignoring data that contradicts our point of view.
Organisations spend a huge amount of time and resources to hire the right people but these talented individuals aren’t able to realise their full potential because of our tendency to judge others, label them and stick with our opinion without making an attempt to be a part of their context.
Fundamental attribution error breaks collaboration, renders communication ineffective and can even make people leave the organisation. It can cost someone their job.
Fundamental attribution error occurs because our brain runs on autopilot and it chooses personal attribution, which is easy and automatic over situational attribution, which is complex and deliberate.
Without engaging in deliberate thinking, we fall for the shortcuts.
When we tag people as difficult, incompetent, lazy, careless, stupid and so on, we don’t see anything wrong with our judgment because we believe in our version of reality.
"They didn’t want more information that might spoil their story. WYSIATI - What You See Is All There Is. WYSIATI facilitates the achievement of coherence and of the cognitive ease that causes us to accept a statement as true. It explains why we can think fast, and how we are able to make sense of partial information in a complex world." - Daniel Kahneman
What makes this reality prone to error is:
We have all the context about our own actions, why we do certain things and act in a certain way. That makes it easy for us to take situational factors into account when rationalising our own behaviour, while falling short of this information when looking at others.
Since we cannot take a person’s circumstantial evidence into account (without asking them) while analysing their behaviour, it’s easy to assume that their behaviour is a reflection of their character “who they are.”
When you pick up a call in the middle of a meeting, you do not consider it “rude” since you know it’s an important call else you wouldn’t have picked it up.
When another person in a meeting does the same thing, your instant reaction is “they are rude”. Without taking a moment to think about what factors may contribute to this behaviour, your snap judgment will be to find fault in their character.
A notable effect of fundamental attribution error is self-serving bias in which we excuse ourselves for the same behaviour which we find unpleasant in others.
Mismatch in expectations makes us angry and at times even irrational. When things do not go as expected, we look for an easy target to blame.
By acting as a victim, we offload our personal responsibility to others. In these moments, we do not think straight and try to reason our feelings by assuming the other person is at fault.
Adopting a mindset which looks for a reason to blame prevents us from digging deeper to analyse the situation better, and rather makeup stories that justifies our point of view.
You have asked a junior member in your team to research a tech stack and present their findings in two days to help you make a decision on a new project. Your junior comes back after two days, but instead of sharing details about the tech stack you discussed, they have found another tech stack that might be more appropriate.
They are eager to present their findings, but without giving them a chance to explain, you outrightly reject their idea. Expectation mismatch makes you furious. Being at the effect of fundamental attribution error, you label them as “dumb” and set your mind to never trust them with another assignment.
Who has time to stop and analyse every situation at work?
Yes, it may be the right thing to do, but it’s so much easier and quick to judge others and live with our personal beliefs without checking for the certainty of our thoughts.
As David Rock says in Your Brain At Work:
"We all often think about what’s easy to think about, rather than what’s right to think about."
With more and more workplaces designed to move fast, it’s extremely hard to take a moment to step back and analyse the behaviour rationally without falling for the attribution error.
You have organised a design review meeting with a bunch of fellow engineers. The meeting so far is going well when a new architect walks into the room and within just a few mins starts to question your design.
Without your conscious awareness, you stamped him as “arrogant” when he walked late into your meeting and now that label justifies itself when he attacks your design. He may be right in asking those questions but you see the conflict as their act of arrogance instead of an attempt to collaborate on a better design proposal.
In an attempt to move fast and get a nod on your design, you fall for the fundamental attribution error and dismiss their valuable feedback.
Realistically speaking, we cannot erase fundamental attribution error from our lives. It’s a thinking library pre-programmed and installed into our brain package with little control over its execution. Most of the time, it gets invoked without our conscious awareness.
Catching it in action will require invoking deliberate thinking in all our interactions which is not practical since it’s much too slow and requires high consumption of mental resources.
But, we can learn to avoid fundamental attribution error when stakes are high by asking these questions:
Shifting from a negative to a positive frame of mind helps us see things differently. When we choose to look for positive instead of the negative, we can try to find evidence that points us in a different direction than our default setting.
We can then act instead of reacting to someone’s behaviour.
Acknowledging fundamental attribution error with the knowledge that behaviour of a person in one context could be completely different from their behaviour in another context can help us be a better co-worker, boss and in general a decent human being.
Summing up in Annie Duke’s words from Thinking In Bets:
"If we can find ways to become more comfortable with uncertainty, we can see the world more accurately and be better for it."
Some of these examples of the fundamental attribution error can help you find your own attribution bias in action:
As a senior member of the team, Brian is tasked with mentoring a few junior engineers. The idea of helping others excites him, but when these engineers demand a lot more time than he anticipated, he starts to feel “I didn’t sign up for this.”
He continues to mentor in the same manner without bringing about any changes to make things better. Then one day, when he’s struggling with his own work, he snaps at one of his mentees and calls them “irritating.”
With fundamental attribution error at play, Brian assumes that his mentees are irritating as they keep wasting his time with silly questions.
Instead of taking charge of the situation by setting expectations and identifying better ways to work with his mentees, he attributes their character as the cause of their behaviour while ignoring the situational factors causing him frustration.
Megan’s boss has pinged her thrice since this morning for the presentation that he needs for his board meeting in the evening.
Her boss is dealing with extreme pressure as he plans to present a new idea to the board that could be a game-changer for the company. Megan takes this constant pinging as a sign of micromanagement instead of trying to assess the situation from her boss’s point of view.
Under normal circumstances, her boss always gives her space to work things out, but due to many last-minute changes in the presentation, he’s nervous about getting the information right. He just wants to make sure he gets a chance to review it and make corrections prior to the meeting.
Under the influence of fundamental attribution error, Megan is quick to judge her boss’s behaviour without considering the situation that might be causing it.
Cathy is an executive for an online education company. She has Rhea joining today to head their new business initiatives.
In an early morning meeting with Rhea and other executives, Cathy notices that Rhea is constantly distracted. She appears lost and keeps checking her phone instead of trying to engage with others.
Rhea’s mom is hospitalised. She came to the office since it was her first day at the job, but is now worried and waiting to hear back from her husband who’s at the hospital looking after her mom.
Without taking the time to speak to Rhea about her observations, Cathy assumes that Rhea is unreliable and not really suited for the role. She applies personal attribution without taking Rhea’s circumstances into account.
Don’t be too judgmental to your team members. Catch yourself when you are about to label someone and take a moment to think about what might cause them to act this way.
Better yet, speak to them about it instead of living with your assumptions. There’s always more to the story than we think.
Also published here.
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