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What Is Fundamental Attribution Error & How Does It Affect Your Team?

Ever heard of the fundamental attribution error? It’s a tendency to over-emphasise personality-based explanations for other people’s behaviour. It’s a mental shortcut that leads us to assume that the cause of someone’s behaviour is internally driven and downplay the role broader situational and environmental factors can play.

The fundamental attribution error concept was first introduced in the 1960s and has been studied extensively in psychology, economics, and sociology since.   We often speak with leaders who fall into the Fundamental Attribution Error trap.  They will say something like “I thought things were going well but it turns out he wasn’t able to cope with the stress of the new job”.  Or they have a team member who is making a lot of mistakes recently. It can be tempting to think they’re just not trying hard enough, or they don’t really care about their work. But it could be that their performance is suffering because of something outside of their control: maybe there’s more work coming from another department than usual, or maybe an illness meant they had to take some time off earlier in the year, leaving them with less time for prep work before meetings.

To combat this tendency, managers need to ensure they are taking into consideration all the factors that contribute to someone’s behaviour before making judgements about performance.   In his book, Clear Leadership, Gervase Bushe groups the reasons people don’t do what we would like them to into 4 categories. These align with our experiences of working with many organisations and offer a useful framework for managers to check against before making judgement calls about performance situations.

The first category is goal, role or behaviour clarity – is your direct report clear on what is expected of them? Most people don’t deliberately set out to underperform but if your team member doesn’t know exactly what you expect of them then it is impossible (other than by stroke of sheer luck) for them to deliver and meet your standards.   And it’s not only about whether you told them what you expect – it’s also about whether they fully understand.  Our article on Delegation gives some great tips on how to clearly set expectations with your team members.  And the great news is if you’ve gone through this process properly you boost the chances of a successful outcome but even if things don’t go according to plan, then you’ve already had a clear expectations setting conversation, which makes providing feedback and discussing what went wrong a whole lot easier.

The second category is a competency or knowledge problem – does your team member know how to do what’s needed? Being a great manager means setting your people up for success. Skills development and capability building is a key investment for high performing teams.  It means helping your team assess whether they have the right capabilities and knowledge to achieve the goals and tasks you are asking of them. It’s about identifying where there are gaps and development opportunities and supporting them to develop a plan to address them.  It’s also about coaching your people as they work toward the goals you set.  Over the long term, by taking this approach, you end up with a better-skilled, more competent team.  It’s hard to admit we don’t know everything, so people can often be afraid to speak up, be vulnerable and say they don’t know something – especially when talking to someone more senior – so make it part of your role to open up that conversation when setting new tasks.

The third category is about motivation – the person doesn’t want to do what’s expected of them.  The key here is understanding what lies underneath the motivation issue.  Is the reluctance simply that someone can’t be bothered? It does happen and this needs to be addressed quickly.  Or is it driven by deeper psychological safety concerns such as a fear of repercussions if things don’t go right?  Or do people not feel their contribution is needed and valued?  Equally is someone just in a role that isn’t a great fit for their personality, skills and capabilities.  Getting to the root cause rather than focusing on the symptoms means you have a better chance of turning the situation around in a way that is positive for you, your organisation and your team member.

The fourth and final category relates to a context problem. Here a person doesn’t have the information, tools, access, or resources to do what’s expected of them.  Despite their best intentions, the surrounding context isn’t set up to support success.  If critical information is accessible only to selected people then performance and outputs will be below par.  Asking people to work from home but then not equipping them with the right equipment and tools to collaborate with colleagues will inevitably cause problems. Equally, if the culture of an organisation is dominated by silo working and territorial attitudes then making progress is likely to be slow.

Reviewing an individual’s performance in the context of these four categories gives us a better overall picture of what is going on and makes it easier to put a plan in place to address any issues. Equally, asking questions like – What would happen if the person were in a different role or working with a different group of people? How does their performance compare to others who work on this task?  Has anyone ever managed to successfully navigate this situation and what was the same or different about that scenario? – all help build a richer picture of the situation.

So, if you’re having trouble with making sense of what your employees/co-workers (or even friends and family) are doing try turning your focus away from trying to figure out who they are and take a look at what’s going on around them. What are the circumstances that brought them to this point? What kind of pressure is there on them, or what kind of opportunities and events are surrounding them that might influence their behaviour?

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