The Fundamental Attribution Error

Middle management is a tricky business. And by “middle,” I mean those treacherous roles where you are not the CEO and sole proprietor, yet neither are you a pure individual contributor. You have a boss, and you are also someone else’s boss. At a minimum you are someone who, from time to time, has to cajole someone else into doing things while others do the same to you - in other words, pretty much all of us.

Why is this middle management position so challenging? Consider the following scenario from my own experience (names and some details changed to protect the innocent):

My coworker, Anna, owed me some data that I needed her to extract from the company’s accounting system. She completely dropped the ball. Spaced it. Name your excuse; bottom line, she didn’t deliver despite the fact that I gave her several days to complete what should have been a twenty minute task. Anna has a reputation for this. She doesn’t manage her time well and she seems just scattered and disorganized. Perhaps it sounds overly blunt to say it, but the fact is Anna just isn’t very accountable and now the impact is on me. As if that wasn’t enough for one morning, right after I talked to Anna, my boss, Blake, came looking for the slides I owed him for his board of directors presentation later this week. I like Blake (most of the time), but he can be pretty unreasonable. He always asks for things days before he really needs them, and he was clearly irritated when he learned I wasn’t done. I shared with him that I had been swamped with urgent requests from my project team and our customer, and that I was doing my best to catch up from vacation last week. On top of all the work stuff, I had been up late last night helping my daughter with homework, not to mention our new puppy demanding attention. Plus - and I didn’t share this because it’s personal - my wife has had a bit of a health scare. We are hoping it’s nothing, but it has us both pretty worried right now. I just wish he would cut me some slack. I feel like I have a strong track record. My life is just a bit crazy right now, and it doesn’t seem fair that Blake doesn’t take any of that into consideration.

Ever have a week like that? Being in the middle of an organization - having demands from both directions - is challenging, as I hope my story illustrates. It is especially challenging if you are blind to the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is what the story is really about. In truth, the story is entirely fictional (well, almost - we do actually have a puppy, and he is sometimes demanding). I made up this story to illustrate a point, but so frequently have I succumbed to this bias it might as well be true.

The Fundamental Attribution Error is one of the most prevalent and impactful of our built-in human biases. Also called the correspondence bias or attribution effect, it is our tendency to attribute the bad behavior of others to their deficient personality or character, while we attribute our own shortcomings to our circumstances, and vice versa with the good. You behave badly because you are a bad person. I behave badly because I am in a difficult situation. You won because you got lucky. I won because I practiced harder.

If you think you don’t do this, ask yourself, when someone cuts you off in traffic, do you automatically think, “she must be really worried about something important to drive like that?” And conversely, when you cut someone off, do you think to yourself, “I did that because I’m a jerk?” Of course you don’t. No one does!

This doesn’t mean that someone’s personality and disposition are not real factors - that especially difficult coworker of yours might really be a bit of a jerk. Many factors determine our behavior. We just tend to emphasize the wrong ones. We chronically overemphasize personality and disposition (what people do reflects who they are) as the cause of undesirable behavior in others while we overemphasize context and circumstances when explaining our own failings (what I do reflects my current situation). We reverse the bias for wins and successes, attributing our own positive outcomes to our hard work and positive character while we chalk it up to favorable circumstances and luck when others succeed (especially where we have failed).

Ironically, if you are feeling like a bad person because you just realized you are guilty of making the Fundamental Attribution Error, you are making a version of the Fundamental Attribution Error. You are failing to consider your own circumstances. Consider what information is available to you. Each of us is acutely aware of our own circumstances - we are in them, after all - yet we have much less information about the circumstances of other people. Thus we make these errors not because we are bad people, but simply because we are using the data available to us to make sense of the world, a very human thing to do. You know how hard you worked to get that promotion because you are you. And you don’t give as much consideration to what your coworker did or didn’t do to get the raise you think you deserved simply because you are not in a position to know.

If you want to venture deeper into this rabbit hole of human foibles, consider that it could be yet another built-in error, the Availability Bias, that gives rise to the Fundamental Attribution Error -  a bias causing a bias. The Availability Bias is our natural inclination to make judgements based on the information that is readily available to us, or that which is most easily recalled, which is always incomplete. We use the available data and forget that it doesn’t represent all the data.

The larger point is this: when I ask myself why people do the things they do - the good, the bad, and the ugly - the best explanation is that they do it because they are human, just like me. We are biased, often irrational, and prone to thinking errors. It is part of the human condition and we cannot change it, but we can become aware of our inherent fallibility and that is (more than) half the battle.

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