The ‘fundamental attribution error’ is, in my experience, the single most common and expensive mistake a manager can make.
The fundamental attribution error is our tendency to over-emphasize ‘dispositional’, or ‘personality-based’, explanations for behaviours observed in others while, simultaneously under-emphasizing ‘situational’ explanations. In other words, we tend to assume that someones actions depend on what “kind” of person they are rather than on the contextual forces influencing the person.
So when someone loses their rag in a meeting it is because they are an angry person who can’t control their behaviour and is unprofessional. When someone cuts us up on the motorway it is because they are a bad driver. If someone pushes in front of us at Tesco’s it is because they are rude.
This error frequently creeps into our management. Especially when people are not performing as we would like. It is convenient to tell ourselves that their behaviour is because of who they are as a person – rather than because of the context in which they are behaving. This is because we are powerless to change ‘who they are as a person’ so as a manger we need do nothing – we just accept it. If we start to consider how the context in which they are operating drives the behaviour then we might have to take a bit more responsibility in making changes. And quite often we find out that the behaviour that we are getting is at its very root caused by the very context that we are paid to manage!
It requires us to resist the temptation to resort to the quick label (they are just lazy/bad/angry/bossy/arrogant/unprofessional). These labels let us off the hook but leaves the situation unchanged and the behaviour likely to recur.
Instead we should ask ourselves why a rational, sensible and good person would behave that way. We need to learn to think ‘How Fascinating!’. We are then forced to consider how context may have driven the behaviour, and what we might be able to do as a manager to change the context.
So for example perhaps the colleague who lost their rag in the meeting is not just Mr Angry – but is really frustrated at being talked over all the time. In this case we might be able to facilitate the meeting a little more robustly, ensure that everyone gets their voice heard and the angry behaviour is likely to disappear.
By considering these contextual factors we do create ourselves more work (this IS the work of management and should not be shied away from) but we also give ourselves a genuine chance of making things better. The kinds of contextual factors that cause ‘bad’ behaviours include:
- lack of skills, judgement or experience (bad driving for example)
- the behaviours of others (angry outbursts from someone who feels they are continually being interrupted)
- lack of incentive/disincentive (the bad behaviour is unrecognised and therefore repeated)
- unchallenged group norms (our meetings always start late)
So learn to recognise and challenge the fundamental attribution error at work. I guarantee it will make you a much better manager.