When you observe and evaluate others, you may not realize that you are negatively biased in your assessments. Likewise, when you consider your own actions and outcomes, you may not realize that you are positively biased. In other words, you are kinder in your self-assessment than you may be in your assessment of others.
A tendency known as “Fundamental Attribution Error” causes us to praise ourselves and blame others in unequal measures. We externalize blame rather than accepting it, and we depersonalize praise rather than attributing it to those who have excelled. This is particularly common in Western cultures. It gets in the way of our ability to be objective and fair-minded.
Here’s how it works. In any event, there are two factors you could evaluate – 1, the personal abilities, personality or characteristics of the individual involved or 2, the situation itself. What we evaluate depends on whether the outcome was positive or negative. The four tendencies are:
1. When it is a positive outcome and we are responsible, we attribute the success to our own innate qualities. We believe it was something about ourselves that led to the success. (I worked really hard to make that happen… It was my intelligence and experience…)
2. When it is a positive outcome and others are responsible, we attribute the success to the situation instead of to his or her innate qualities. (It was good timing… She’s just lucky… The stars were aligned…)
3. When it is a negative outcome and others are responsible, we attribute the failure to his or her innate qualities. (He’s not a people person… She couldn’t handle the pressure… He’s too stubborn…)
4. When it is a negative outcome and we are responsible, we attribute the failure to the situation instead of to our own innate qualities. (The deadline was unrealistic… The goals were not clear… It was bad timing…)
This happens in the workplace and in our day-to-day interactions with others. It happens in social settings and in close relationships. Fundamental Attribution Error damages friendships and impairs your own credibility. It’s a dangerous habit to acquire, a tough one to break, and an imperative one to be aware of in your own assessment of others.
Look for this tendency in your casual encounters. For example, when a driver cuts you off in traffic...do you immediately respond with a personalized attack (“That so-and-so… What an idiot…)? You’ve assumed that this negative outcome should be attributed to the innate qualities of that individual. But what about when you cut someone off in traffic. Do you blame the situation (“The exit wasn’t clearly marked and I had to get over right away.)? You’ve externalized the blame rather than taking the same responsibility that you foist on others.
Now watch for this tendency in your workplace encounters. Maybe your co-worker didn’t leave his dirty dishes in the sink because he’s a slob. Maybe it’s because an urgent phone call drew him away from lunch early. Maybe the unfriendly snob who never says “Hello” is preoccupied and frazzled at the beginning of the day with extreme pressures related to daycare and commuting. Any time you catch yourself attributing something negative to someone’s personality or innate characteristics, we should pause to ask whether or not that is really fair.
How do you know if it’s fair? Put yourself in their shoes. Instead of indignantly saying “I’d never leave dirty dishes in the shared kitchen,” imagine what would cause you to do that. Whatever that extreme scenario is, give others the benefit of the doubt – maybe they had some extreme circumstance, too. When you begin to consider the situation as a cause of someone’s misdeed or mistake, you are giving them the same grace you give yourself.
This works with the positive outcomes, too. If you give yourself credit for achievements you’ve made, then you should be willing to give others the same sort of credit for their achievements, too.
You nailed a presentation and convinced the entire team to try your new idea? Congratulations! You earned the credit for your hard work, your research, your preparation and your eloquence in presenting. The next time a co-worker makes a great presentation, don’t minimize it. You know what it takes to have that kind of success so give the credit and praise that is due for your co-worker’s achievement. If luck, timing, favoritism or any other external factors were part of the co-worker’s success, so what? They were probably a part of your success, too.
Ready to really stretch your new-found skills in balanced attribution? Look at your closest relationships. Your significant other didn’t unload the dishwasher? It’s not necessarily because (s)he’s a lazy, good-for-nothing deadbeat. Maybe (s)he’s exhausted or got distracted. You’ve been there and done that, too. When it was you, did you heap personalized attacks on yourself? Or did you blame external factors?
By keeping a balanced perspective and giving fair attribution, you will be more credible and objective. You’ll be looking at others’ outcomes the way you look at your own. That’s what being fair is all about.
As a leader, it’s imperative to understand why and how to show ever person that you care about them. Learn more about how you can CONNECT2Lead. And be sure to subscribe to the CONNECT2Lead Blog for weekly tips and techniques on leading with a people first approach.