Judging others but excusing ourselves

Leadership  Relationships
24 September, 2018

Fundamental Attribution Error causes you to make snap judgments and assume the worst about people

Think back to the last time a colleague failed to meet a deadline or showed up late for a meeting. In all probability, you immediately judged them: “He is such a slacker. Terrible work ethic!”

Now, remember a time you failed to meet a deadline or showed up late for a meeting. I’m sure you can think of plenty of good reasons: “I was overloaded with work/ I was dealing with a family crisis/ I didn’t get the support I needed. It had nothing to do with my commitment to work!”

We tend to use different yardsticks – for ourselves vs. others!

This bias is called Fundamental Attribution Error – the tendency to attribute the negative behaviour of other people to their character, while attributing our own poor behaviour to the situation. To put it another way, we hold other people fully accountable for their actions, while giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt. (On the other hand, when things go well for us, we see it as the result of our own hard work and talent. But when other people succeed, we tend to attribute it to luck and privilege).

This week, my message focuses on Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE): what it is, the problems it creates at the workplace, and how you can overcome it.

FAE is the reason you make faulty snap judgments. When you observe a negative behaviour in someone else, you simultaneously underestimate the impact of situational factors and overestimate the role of character/capability. With yourself, however, you’re kinder and more understanding. You’re quick to realise that the occasional misstep doesn’t indicate a deeper character flaw. So, why this double standard?

While you’re already aware of the broader context around your own mistakes, you don’t have this luxury when it comes to other people. When they mess up, you don’t get immediate access to what happened behind the scenes. So, based on the very limited information at hand, you rush to an easy conclusion – there must be something wrong with the person.

FAE creates numerous problems at the workplace. As a leader, your simplistic assumptions could cause you to wrongly judge people’s performance and intentions. Team members may resent your unwarranted criticism, fuelling interpersonal conflict. Inevitably, this takes a toll on the trust, engagement, and cohesion within the team.

Moreover, this cognitive bias can lead to an incomplete understanding of the problem and, therefore, ineffective solutions.

Finally, making rapid negative judgments about people also affects you personally. It clouds your view of reality, makes you cynical, and colours your daily interactions with everyone – from family and friends, to strangers on the street.

The good news is that this inherent bias can be overcome. Here are six steps you can take to stop being a victim of FAE and form a clearer understanding of other people:

1. Own your bias

The first (and most crucial) step is being open to the possibility that your instantly-formed conclusions may not be correct. We’re all prone to FAE – and you’re no exception. Once you accept this, you can start to make progress.

2. Practice empathy

Research shows that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes makes you kinder and less judgmental. If you aren’t naturally empathetic, practice. Get in the habit of interrogating your own assumptions.

Is the cashier at the supermarket being slow? Instead of assuming she’s lazy, imagine yourself in her place. Maybe the system keeps hanging, maybe she’s been on her feet all day, maybe it’s her first day and she’s still learning. Empathy costs you practically nothing, and instantly defuses anger and stress.

3. Dig deeper

If a team member is late or disrespectful, examine the bigger picture, i.e. their behaviour up till now. Do you see a pattern, or is this a one-off? Perhaps the problem started recently, which indicates that the cause is probably situational – rather than character-related.

In Attributions: A Method to Help Explain the Behavior We Observe In Others, Bret L. Simmons shares a helpful approach to uncover these reasons. Consider these three factors, identified by social psychologist Harold Kelley in his work on attribution:

Consensus – Look at peers performing the same task. Do they behave/perform the same?

Distinctiveness – Look at the individual performing different tasks. Is there something distinctive about their performance on this task?

Consistency – The frequency of a particular behaviour over time.

4. Go to the source

Another strategy is to speak directly to the person. In Attribution Error: what it is and why you should know about it, Suzi McAlpine recommends asking the right types of questions:

Ask open and probing questions. “What got in the way of x happening?” is far more effective in uncovering the real roadblock, than “WHY did this happen/not happen?” (which is more judgmental and more likely to result in defensiveness).

You can also frame questions using “Help me understand…” or “I want us to figure out…”. Be willing to actually listen, and you may be surprised by what you discover. Your team member could be struggling with a new procedure, a lack of support, or even a personal issue that you were unaware of.

5. Know your team

By learning more about your team members as people, you gain access to their broader context – their background, motivations, goals, challenges, values, etc. That way, when you see negative behaviour, you’ll have far more relevant information to help you pinpoint the real reason behind it.

6. Assume the best

In Is The Fundamental Attribution Error Destroying Your Team?, Spencer Horn mentions the benefit of the doubt that we constantly give ourselves – and advises extending this same courtesy to our teams:

Assume your team members have good intentions just like you. Our impact is not always what we intend. Give others the same consideration you give yourself when your impact does not match your intentions. Understand that your team members do not set out to fail at a task or to make your life miserable.

We’ve all been in high-pressure situations, battling factors outside of our control – and we know how it changes our behaviour. As leaders, we must apply this wide-angle lens towards the actions of our team members as well. Instead of letting FAE cloud our objectivity and narrow our view, let’s dig deeper to come up with a more accurate picture. This is essential to build trusting, cohesive teams and make better decisions.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


  • Isha says:

    This is such a true analysis of why we judge people differently than ourselves in similar circumstances. This helps us introspect better, take conscious efforts to deal with FAE and improve both professional and personal relations.

    Thank you so much for this piece!

  • Bimal says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article. My favourite is #2 – Practice Empathy. Please let me know the downsides of this too. Does this hinder us to see the real problem behind the flaw?


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