The Fundamental Attribution Error: It's the Situation, Not the Person

Sometimes what looks like a problem with a person is really a problem with the situation. Let me tell you the story of a woman named Amanda who worked for Nike in Vietnam. She traveled a lot, and when she got home, she had a pile of work waiting for her. But she wanted to stay accessible to her team, so she established an “open door” policy, inviting her direct reports to come see her any time.

So she was astonished when she got some performance reviews back and found that her team complained that she wasn’t listening to them. What else did she need to do? She had an open-door policy! She investigated some more and discovered the root of the problem. When people came to see her, they sat across from her desk. And when they were talking, sometimes she’d catch a glimpse of an email coming in. And sometimes she’d take the opportunity to reply while the employee was talking. No big deal, right? Just multitasking! But, understandably, the employees felt like she was being rude and not listening. So, having discovered this, what did she do? Did she attend sensitivity training? Hire a life coach?

No, one afternoon, she rearranged her office. Now, when people came to see her, she had to turn completely around to face them. Her computer was totally out of sight. No more email temptation.

Six months later, she solicited more feedback from her direct reports, and her communication scores had soared. So what changed Amanda’s character so dramatically? Nothing. She was the same person. But her situation—her environment—was different, so she acted differently.

But what if HR had gotten wind of her performance reports? They might have drawn some conclusions about her. “This Amanda isn’t very empathetic. She doesn’t listen well. Maybe she’s just not cut out for management.”

That judgment is what’s called, in psychology, the Fundamental Attribution Error. Meaning that we tend to attribute people’s behavior to their core character rather than to their situation. So when somebody cuts you off in traffic, you think, “What a jerk!” You don’t think, “I wonder what situation he’s in that’s causing him to drive so crazy.” Even though in those times when YOU have driven crazily, it was almost certainly because of the situation you were in—you were late for a job interview or a date.

Amanda was a great manager with a situation problem—she needed to eliminate the distraction. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.  How can you make your people better at work by changing their environment?

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1 Comments

  • conrad c willy

    Story is a ALICE IN WONDERLAND type of stroy. More than likely the associates went over her
    head to top managemetn. Top management went to HR. HR then got the girl straight. Top Management
    then fired both the lady and the HR person, which magnified the problem.
    Worst cases of this FAE is when a worker reports an unsafe condition in the work place. Management
    then thinks the person who reports the condition is at fault. The unsafe condition causes an
    accident. Management then associates the accident with the person and because of
    the FAE effect blames the person who reported the accident in the first place.
    Managemetn quite often enhances the conditions that caused the accident rather then
    finding a way to prevent the accident to happen again.