Avoiding the Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental Attribution Error

One of the challenges as a leader is to become aware of our cognitive biases, like those we have covered in previous blogs (Leaders and Cognitive Dissonance and Displaying Confidence). One of the more challenging cognitive biases for many leaders is the Fundamental Attribution Error.

What is the Fundamental Attribution Error?

The Fundamental Attribution Error is the human tendency to make an assumption about the cause of someone’s actions, attributing them to the person’s character or personality rather than an external reason or circumstance that is outside that person’s control. Sometimes the assumption is based on previous experience with that person, how we feel the average person SHOULD respond, our own mood that day or how much investment we have in that person.

Let’s say, for example, that you have an employee who was supposed to have a report on your desk at 8AM this morning, however the report was not there. You may assume that your employee is lazy or doesn’t care. You may question what is wrong with them rather than expending the energy to think about external things that may have gotten in their way or getting the facts from them directly.

Perhaps the bus they take to work didn’t show up this morning and they had to wait for the next one or figure out how to get into work. Perhaps they ran into a person more senior to you in the hallway and they felt it would be rude to cut off the conversation so they could get the report on your desk. Or perhaps they were waiting on information that they believed would impact the report in a way that you would want to know about. Maybe they even sent you an email you haven’t seen yet or left you a voicemail you haven’t heard yet to explain why that report was not there.

How Can We Avoid the Fundamental Attribution Error?

Avoiding the Fundamental Attribution Error takes self-reflection, awareness and practice. Here are some strategies:

Think About the Whole Person
Learn more about your employees. Like you, your employees have lives and like you, there are plenty of things that may get in the way of a single situation happening as it should.

Build Trust
The Center for Neuroeconomics showed that employees in high trust environments experience:

  • 50% higher productivity
  • 40% less burnout,
  • 74% less stress
  • 29% higher life satisfaction

The report also showed that these employees were 106% more likely to feel a higher level of energy for getting things done.

To build trust means that Leaders have to trust that their employee have the team’s best interest at heart. For the example above, this means assuming that there is likely some good reason they may have missed that deadline, until you have gathered facts that may show otherwise.

Build Your Emotional Intelligence
Self-reflect. Self-regulate. Notice when you jump to conclusions and how much energy you expend. Build your empathy skills – that is your ability to put yourself in the shoes of the other person and understand things from their perspective (not yours).

Communicate Your Expectations
Building trust requires that your employees clearly understand the results that are expected of them. The more gray area you leave in these expectations, the more likely there will be some disconnect or misunderstanding about what you expect. Be clear about what needs to get done, the quality of work, associated deadlines, and where they have the freedom to complete things their own way.

Have Transformational One-on-Ones with Your Team
One of the most important things that effective managers do is schedule regular, transformative one-on-one’s with their employees. One-on-one’s are your opportunity build trust, test your emotional intelligence, communicate your expectations and ensure that the employee is on track with their tasks and projects. To make these one-on-one’s truly transformative, you want to build employees that are problem solvers – that can recognize obstacles and can creatively work to transform those obstacles. For help, checkout my Transformative One-on-One Worksheet.

At True North Professional Development, we can help you further develop your leadership capabilities and more effectively avoid the Fundamental Attribution Error. Give us a call at 425.835.2124 to learn more about our Business Coaching or how our Success-Minded Leader programs can impact your abilities.

You are invited to join our private Success-Minded Leader Facebook group, where we share articles and discuss what makes a Success-Minded Leader.

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