Point Lookout An email newsletter from Chaco Canyon Consulting
Point Lookout, a free weekly email newsletter from Chaco Canyon Consulting
May 5, 2004 Volume 4, Issue 18
 
Recommend this issue to a friend
Join the Friends of Point Lookout
HTML to link to this article…
Archive: By Topic    By Date
Links to Related Articles
Sign Up for A Tip A Day!
Create a perpetual bookmark to the current issue Bookmark and Share
Tweet this! | Follow @RickBrenner Random Article

The Fundamental Attribution Error

by

When we try to understand the behavior of others, we often make a particularly human mistake. We tend to attribute too much to character and disposition and too little to situation and context. When we seek a better balance, we can adopt a more accepting view of events around us.

The meeting ran over by about five minutes, just long enough to make most of them late to their 11ams. So the room emptied quickly, leaving Spencer alone with the meeting chair, Lynne. Lynne asked, "Help me take down the flip charts?"

"Sure," he said, "no problem."

A moccasin"I wanted to talk to you, too," she said. "I really felt that you weren't being very helpful today."

Spencer felt somewhat shocked at first, but then it came to him — it was probably Metronome. Still, he didn't want to let her see that he knew what it was. "Oh? In what way?"

They now had all the flip chart sheets flat on the table, and Lynne sat down in her chair. Spencer sat down across the table from her.

"When you brought up the Metronome interface," she said.

"Oh, that," he said. "It just seemed to me that the rest of the meeting depended on it."

We have a tendency
to explain the behavior
of others in terms of
character rather
than context
Lynne felt her frustration building. "But I explained all that in my email yesterday. And you went ahead anyway. That's what bothers me."

Lynne has now dug herself into a neat hole. She is assuming that Spencer saw her message, and she feels that he disregarded it. In fact, he never did receive it, and he was unaware of the change in the agenda.

Lynne's error is perfectly human. It's so common that it even has a name — the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). As humans, we have a tendency to explain the behavior of others on the basis of disposition or character, rather than context or the actions of third parties. Probably this happens because we understand the internal motives of others more easily than we understand the complex situations they face. That's reasonable, because we usually have only vague information about how situations look to others.

For example, Lynne was completely unaware that Spencer had been having chronic email problems. Customer reports are routed to a list he has to subscribe to, and his inbox suffers from chronic bloat, which has exposed a bug in the email client they all use. Lynne attributed Spencer's behavior to a deliberate choice, but he might have made another choice if he had been aware of the change in the agenda.

An American Indian proverb captures the idea of the FAE most elegantly: "Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins." To help you remember the Fundamental Attribution Error, get a pair of baby moccasins. Baby shoes will do, too. Put one on your desk or on top of your computer monitor and the other in your car. Only you will know what they mean, because everyone else who tries to figure out their meaning will make the Fundamental Attribution Error. Go to top Top  Next issue: Hot and Cold Running People  Next Issue
Bookmark and Share

For more about the Fundamental Attribution Error, see Gladwell, Malcolm, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2002. p. 160-163. Order from Amazon.com.

For more articles about the Fundamental Attribution Error and its applications, search this site.


Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

Hard at WorkThe Tweaking CC
When did you last receive an email message with a "tweaking CC"? Probably yesterday. A tweaking CC is usually a CC to your boss or possibly the entire known universe, designed to create pressure by exposing embarrassing information.

A wild turkeyIt's a Wonderful Day!
Most knowledge workers are problem solvers. We work towards goals. We anticipate problems as best we can, and when problems appear, we solve them. But our focus on anticipating problems can become a problem in itself — at work and in Life.

A tire reef off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, FloridaManaging Hindsight Bias Risk
Performance appraisal practices and project retrospectives both rely on evaluating performance after outcomes are known. Unfortunately, a well-known bias — hindsight bias — can limit the effectiveness of many organizational processes, including both performance appraisal and project retrospectives.

Brian Urquhart of the Office of the UN Under-Secretaries Without Porfolios. (1 January 1956)Staying in Abilene
A "Trip to Abilene," identified by Jerry Harvey, is a group decision to undertake an effort that no group members believe in. Extending the concept slightly, "Staying in Abilene" happens when groups fail even to consider changing something that everyone would agree needs changing.

Tennis players shake hands after their matchPreventing Toxic Conflict: Part II
Establishing norms for respectful behavior is perhaps the most effective way to reduce the incidence of toxic conflict at work. When we all understand and subscribe to a particular way of treating each other, we can all help prevent trouble.

See also Emotions at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

Henny Youngman in 1957Coming April 22: Quips That Work at Work: Part I
Perhaps you've heard that humor can defuse tense situations. Often, a clever quip, deftly delivered, does help. And sometimes, it's a total disaster. What accounts for the difference? Available here and by RSS on April 22.
"Will" Rogers, humorist and cowboy philosopherAnd on April 29: Quips That Work at Work: Part II
Humor, used effectively, can defuse tense situations. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for using humor to defuse tension and bring confrontations, meetings, and conversations back to a place where thinking can resume. Available here and by RSS on April 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
ThereThe Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Leading Virtual Meetings for Real Results
LeadiLeading Virtual Meetings for Real Resultsng or participating in virtual meetings — teleconferences, Web conferences, video conferences, and more — is challenging. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, distractions, politics, and interpersonal conflict all thrive in the typical environment of the virtual team. We'll inventory the challenges virtual meeting leaders and participants face, and provide tools for anticipating and addressing them. The focus of this program is practical — attendees will learn concrete techniques for preventing and dealing with the problems that arise in virtual meetings. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders
On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Managing in Fluid Environments
Most Managing in Fluid Environmentspeople now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know what's coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Decision-Making for Team Leaders
EffecDecision-Making for Team Leaderstive group decision-making requires far more than knowing how to organize a discussion or take a vote. This program is designed for both new and experienced team leaders or team sponsors, managers, project managers, portfolio managers, program managers, and executives and general managers. It is especially valuable to people who work in organizations that confront fluid environments, in which decisions must be made in the context of uncertainty. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
For mCognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Makingost of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsLearn how to spot troubled projects before they get out of control.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
SSL