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.

One Reason We Struggle With Emotional Intelligence

And What To Do About It

I became interested in emotional intelligence for several reasons:

  1. I have been an executive for over 26 years. In that time, I noticed reoccurring behavior patterns in myself and in those I worked with, that were getting in our way.
  2. I have been married for 31 years and I have become aware that my need to be in control was not as empowering as needed for my wife and five children. My personality traits cause me to become defensive because of certain triggers and circumstances. I started learning how I could become a better husband father and leader.
  3. I started working for a leadership development company and I became fascinated with emotional intelligence. My findings has helped me train over 12,000 business professionals and since then coach scores of executives to be more effective in their roles.

I have learned that everyone has some sort of conditioned behavioral patterns they are dealing with.

Some behavioral challenges are like mine, most are different. Some people have a need for significance or to be liked. I am working with a group that puts on a major youth event every year, to teach young people valuable life lessons, and give them opportunities to lead and serve. Jonas, one of the adult leaders, had an unconscious desire to be liked. Because of that, he planned activities that would be fun and make him popular with the kids. This caused the event to go significantly over budget. To Jonas, the need to be liked overrides the need to stay in the budget and give the kids service opportunities, which will develop their leadership skills. Other leaders are frustrated with this behavior. However, most are conflict avoidant, another behavioral pattern. They do not want to hurt Jonas’ feelings, so they don’t say anything to Jonas’ face. This behavior pattern, to avoid conflict with Jonas, led them to complain to others behind his back.

There are multiple behaviors that could be getting in your way. Perhaps you have a hard time saying no. For example you meet with a friend who you know is going to ask you to join a volunteer board or do something you do not have the time or bandwidth to do. You plan to say no and instead you leave the meeting having said yes again. You promise yourself you are going to be nice, loving and supportive to people you love. Instead, you snap and belittle someone you care for in a moment of weakness. You promise you are going to hold your peace and listen to others, but you end up over sharing and “one upping” with your stories. These behaviors keep reoccurring though we desperately want them to stop.

What will it take for you to solve the problems you currently face? To get the results you want and those expected of you? There will always be challenges or changes in your life. The one consistent element is you. There are many things in your environment you can’t control. You can control your response to what happens. To effectively control your response, develop your emotional intelligence! There is a high probability that in the next six weeks you will get frustrated. There is a huge value for you to be able control your frustration. There are tools available to you that will really help you improve your emotional intelligence and help you become the leader you want to be and your team wants to follow. Become the friend, spouse, or the parent your family loves to be with.

Why Emotional Intelligence Is So Hard

With all the benefits of emotional intelligence and the overwhelming evidence of the other benefits, research suggests that only on third of the population is aware of their emotions as they happen. There is simple reason the number of emotionally intelligent people is so small.

We are not conditioned to be emotionally intelligent. We do not judge ourselves by how emotionally aware we are. Instead, we typically judge ourselves by how right we are or how intelligent we are. This behavior is not necessarily our fault. It is the result of consistent programming from our childhood until now. Early in our educational experience, we started getting homework. With the homework, we met the red pen. When we did your homework and made a mistake, we usually received notes in red pen in the margin usually pointing out our mistakes. This process was repeated over and over through our education process. You were constantly judged on how right you were. And when you were right a lot, you got to go to the next grade, you were rewarded for being right, and then you get to go to college and the process of being right was reinforced here. The world is full of people trained and conditioned to be right.

We may get hired or promoted because of knowledge or technical skill we obtained through our education. Most of us know someone who was promoted and failed. Because they were great at the task or job, they were promoted. In a leadership role, emotional intelligence skills are needed because as a leader, we get things done through others efforts. We no longer do the job, but manage others who do the job.

Most of us have received very little feedback on our emotional intelligence through our formative years. Most of us have the EI competencies of a 4th grader. We’re all emotionally 4th graders with longer legs. Most of our behavioral patterns are developed by then and we carry those habits into adulthood. Most of us judge ourselves on how right we are. The best leaders understand this and have begun to develop their EI competencies.. The Harvard Business Review Article written by Daniel Goleman makes it clear that the “smarter” you are, the more likely you are to be less effective in a leadership role. Read When Being Too Smart Hurts You. Think about how most people judge themselves. “Am I right? Was I right?” Is it possible to be 100% right and not handle the situation well? Yes. It is not enough to manage based on how right you are. The ability to be right doesn’t matter. The ability to have a positive impact does. For more information on impact, see our article, Is the Fundamental Attribution Error Destroying Your Team.

What You Can Do To Increase Your Emotional Intelligence?

  1. Learn about emotional intelligence:

    Study the subject and learn how important it is. I recommend a couple of good books: Working With Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, and Emotional Intelligence 2.0, By Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves. This book comes with an online assessment to help you understand where to focus your EI self development strategy. Which brings us to the next suggestion.

  2. Self-Assess:

    A 360 Assessment is a great tool to understand the impact you are having on your direct reports, peers, managers and more. It takes a willingness to get better to seek the feedback of others. Another great tool is the ProScan Personal Development Profile. This survey will help you identify your behavioral patterns that help and hurt you. It will help you understand how you are being depleted of energy based on your environment which may be making it harder to control impulse urges when you are triggered by an event, person, or situation.

  3. Work with a mentor or coach:

    Enlist someone at home or work to help you identify the behaviors you exhibit which are not helpful to your success and the success of your team. An effective coach can also interview key people in your life to help find patterns of behavior that would be helpful to address.

  4. Identify your emotional triggers:

    Read What Sets You Off? When you identify events, situations, or people that trigger your patterned responses, you can prepare yourself. Greater awareness of how your environment triggers you is a hallmark of increased emotional intelligence.

  5. Develop your team:

    Empower the people around you to become more aware. This will raise the bar for the entire team and create positive reinforcement for all to begin to improve behaviors.

  6. Observe others:

    Pay attention to other people and notice how they behave in certain situations. Identify behavior your want to emulate and behaviors you want to avoid. For more information read Sharpen Emotional Intelligence by Observing Others.

  7. Be curious:

    Be curious about your behaviors. Ask why you behave a certain way in certain situations. Do your best to be an observer of your own behavior. This is a coaching technique that can be very helpful. Read, Change Your Altitude. There is a saying, “That which we observe, we are no more.”

When you improve your emotional intelligence, you will experience immediate benefits to your ability to change your approach and be more dynamic as a leader. You will be more productive and better able to achieve the results you desire.

The Author, Spencer Horn, is the president of Spencer Horn Solutions, LLC.