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."
"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
than contextLynne 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. Top Next Issue
The 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
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.
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Conflict Haiku
- When tempers flare, or tension fills the air, many of us contribute to the stew, often without realizing
that we do. Here are some haiku that describe some of the many stances we choose that can lead groups
into tangles, or let those tangles persist once they form.
- Irrational Self-Interest
- When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages
of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume
that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
- When Somebody Throws a Nutty
- To "throw a nutty" — at work, that is — can include anything from extreme verbal
over-reaction to violent physical abuse of others. When someone exhibits behavior at the milder end
of this spectrum, what responses are appropriate?
- Why Scope Expands: I
- Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction,
has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?
- Make Suggestions Privately
- Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions
privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 1: Full Disclosure
- The term "full disclosure" is now a fairly common phrase, especially in news interviews and in film and fiction thrillers involving government employees or attorneys. It also has relevance in the knowledge workplace, and nuances associated with it can affect your credibility. Available here and by RSS on May 1.
- And on May 8: Brain Clutter
- The capacity of the human mind is astonishing. Our ability to accomplish great things while simultaneously fretting about mountains of trivia is perhaps among the best evidence of that capacity. Just magine what we could accomplish if we could control the fretting… Available here and by RSS on May 8.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.