Is The Fundamental Attribution Error Destroying Your Team?

Learn How You May Be Destroying Trust on Your Team and Five Steps To Strengthen Your Team.

Often, we judge ourselves and our actions by our intentions, rather than our impact. However, we judge others by what we believe their intentions to be and their impact. This double standard for judgment is a problem. As a leader you certainly have good intentions. You no doubt have the company’s best interest in mind when you make decisions. You probably care about your employee’s welfare and well-being, at least for the benefit of the company if not for them. To your employees however, your intentions do not matter. What matters is how you impact them. The best leaders understand how their actions, behaviors and attitude impact others on the team. They adjust their behavior to get the most out of their team members.

Problems arise when employees don’t meet leaders expectations and they are judged by the leaders perception of their intentions rather than their impact. For example, I am currently advising a board of directors and helping them work more effectively together. One board member, Anita, was complaining about another member, Jessica, who committed to complete several tasks and failed to meet her deadline. The impact of this failure impacted Anita’s commitments and timelines. Both board members are committed to the cause, however, Anita judged that Jessica was not committed or dedicated to her responsibilities. This judgment was then expressed to other board members. Anita’s judgment of Jessica’s intentions caused her to be less likely to help Jessica. After all, why should she put effort into a board member who she thinks doesn’t really care? The behavior which destroys trust is this; attributing Jessica’s impact or behavior to a lack of commitment.

In reality, Jessica did care and is committed. The problem was; she over committed and did not accurately assess her ability to complete the task given her significant other commitments. She was also reluctant to shift the burden to other board members by asking for help. She completed the task a few days later and apologized to the rest of the board. Anita understood the situation and recognized that her own high level of commitment and passion for the mission caused her to inaccurately judge her team member’s intentions. People on our teams will let us down from time to time. However, it is not usually because of willful rebellion, character flaw, or wanting to make our lives miserable.

What happened here is known as the fundamental attribution error and it can destroy trust and cohesion on a team if it is not understood and addressed. It is defined by assuming your own actions and behaviors are caused by external factors; and character flaws or behavior defects determine other people’s actions. For example, you discipline your child by grounding them because they didn’t get a good grade on a test or they didn’t come home on time. You did this because circumstance caused you to take action. However, when you see another parent discipline their child you may attribute their behavior to their need to exercise control, or because the they are ignorant of good parenting skills, etc. The fundamental attribution error means you have a positive bias toward your own behavior. You give yourself the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand you are biased against other people’s behavior attributing the behavior to deficiencies of personality. When you do this, you destroy trust and reduce the commitment and engagement of your team.

Here are some things you can do to avoid the fundamental attribution error and strengthen your team:

  1. Understand their motivation

    If you want to really understand why someone took an action, didn’t act or behaved a certain way, ask them. Asking effective questions is powerful tool to help build trust on your team. When you ask the right questions you will arrive at the heart of the issue. When you know it, You may adjust your expectations or you will have an opportunity to coach and mentor a team member. Learn to ask effective open-ended questions. Review this brief video on the benefit of questions. Open-ended questions help us get more information than yes or no questions. They usually start with how, what, when, who, and where. Avoid using why for your initial question because it can sound accusatory. A great way to frame a question is to use, “help me understand….” or “please explain your thought process….” These are great ways to get the needed information.

  2. Assume the best

    Assume your team members have good intentions just like you. Our impact is not always what we intend. Give others the same consideration you give yourself when your impact does not match your intentions. Understand that your team members do not set out to fail at a task or to make your life miserable. I hear executives complain their employees sometimes make them crazy. That is giving those employees too much credit. Your employees are not intentionally doing things to you; they are usually doing things for themselves or acting in their own best interest. They may not be fully aware that their impact does not match their intentions. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

  3. Seek an outside perspective

    Working with a trusted colleague or an effective coach can help you develop the perspective you need. Often when we are frustrated or emotional in our judgment, our subsequent actions may not be appropriate for the situation. We may not have the proper perspective to understand what is really happening around us, or understand why we may be feeling frustrated and upset. A coach or mentor can help you quickly gain a different perspective often by asking questions. They also add a level of accountability that can be very helpful. If you know you have to report to someone about your behavior and interactions with direct reports or peers, it may cause you to check your own behavior more carefully.

  4. Self-assess

    Hold yourself accountable. If you are not working with a coach, create a list of questions you can regularly ask yourself. For example: Did I do my best to give _____ the benefit of the doubt? Did I do my best to be engaged and open in my conversation? Did I do my best to understand their perspective? Did I do my best to treat _____ fairly? Best selling author and organizational expert Marshall Goldsmith discusses this concept in his book Triggers.

  5. Learn more about your team members

    A great way to understand what motivates someone is to learn more about their personal life and background. Take the time to get to know about their interests, challenges, desires and goals. Use a behavioral assessment to dig even deeper. An effective behavioral assessment will help you understand the strengths and opportunities of a person’s personality. It can also help you understand their motivators and what kind of stress they are currently experiencing. I have used many assessments over the years and I prefer a tool called ProScan Professional Development Profile. It has one of the highest correlation co-efficiencies in the industry. It only takes about 5-10 minutes to complete, which is key for busy executives, and you do not have to be a psychologist to understand the results. Greater understanding of behavior preferences and motivation will help you adjust your approach.

Judging by a double standard is giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming the worst of other people’s intentions. This behavior is very damaging to the trust and cohesiveness of your team. It can cause you to complain about potentially incorrect behaviors to others spreading discord and it can cause you to withhold support and perhaps needed feedback from a colleague or direct report. Take action today to change your behavior and strengthen trust and cohesion on your teams.

The Author Spencer Horn is the President of Spencer Horn Solutions. For more related topics read: Silence Your SaboteurHow To Defeat The Fog of War in Businessand Cure For The CEO Disease.

How Asking Questions Strengthens Your Team

Effective Questions Help You Motivate, Coach, Mentor, Challenge, Engage, Discover, Understand and Improve

So often leaders feel they need to tell their employees what to do and answer all their questions. This can cause them to miss valuable opportunities to help teach and develop their people. By asking your people to come up with their own solutions, you let them struggle which causes greater learning and learning retention.  By asking questions and for input in meetings and on proposed initiatives, you get great feedback which may improve outcomes and avoid mistakes. You also increase engagement. Telling people what to do causes them to be less engaged. If what you tell them does not work and they are not bought in, they blame the leader instead of taking ownership.  Asking questions helps reduce emotions during conflict and challenging conversations by engaging the logic center of your brain. Learning the art of effective open ended questioning will help you be a more effective leader. Take time to learn this skill today!

Another really effective tool for getting the information you need is “help me understand…” or “please give me a specific example…” You can ask about thought process, how confident some is about a decision, how they made a decision, or why they took a specific action, etc. This is especially helpful when you are frustrated with someone and you want to ask “why did you do that?” Instead, take a calm and curious approach. You may find the the decision or action was exactly what was called for and you will maintain a professionalism the ensures the confidence and trust of your team.

One Reason a Healthy Culture is Essential

Are you having a hard time attracting the best talent? Here is one reason and one thing that will help.