Fundamental Attribution Error and Teams

I’m privileged to be working with Pat Lencioni and his colleagues at The Table Group. Our main push right now is to prepare a series of on-line courses leveraging the material in Pat’s books, The Advantage and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. In this post, I share some of the bonus material we’ve prepared on the fundamental attribution error as it relates to how we interpret our team members’ actions. Here’s one of Pat’s background videos to get us started:

Cognitive Biases and Nobel Prizes

Several Nobel Prizes have been awarded to scientists who focus on the different kind of errors people tend to make in their thinking and decision making. In 1978, Herbert Simon received his award for ideas around how people make bounded (not fully) rational decisions. For example, we make take the first satisfactory answer rather than considering all options. In 2002, Daniel Kahneman received his prize for uncovering a variety of different biases in how people think. For example, a team may work to improve on a plan proposal put forth by a member, but will likely be anchored to that initial draft rather than applying all the skills of the team toward the best plan. In 2017, Richard Thaler, a behavioral economist, was honored for showing how the application of psychological realities helps explain many economic actions. In the case of applying his ideas toward helping people make good decisions, there are a variety of ways to “nudge” people toward better decisions by setting defaults or incentives in helpful ways.

Cognitive Biases & Trust in Teams

We share this history to highlight how human biases, like the fundamental attribution error, are a problem for all people, not just some; a problem for all teams, not just some. Attribution errors and biases can break down the trust in a team, but for the fundamental attribution error, and many other errors we’ve not had a chance to mention, there is a general first-stage solution: We need to Stop-Look-Listen. (I cover the Stop-Look-Listen practice in my 2012 book, The Plugged-In Manager: Get in Touch With Your People, Technology, and Organization to Thrive.)

Nobel laureates Thaler and Kahneman both have best-selling books (Nudge; Thinking, Fast and Slow) offering deep dives into how to overcome our biases, but for now, we’ll offer these basic options for overcoming the fundamental attribution error. When you see someone do something and you feel yourself coming to a negative assessment:

  • Stop and look for all the reasons that someone may have taken the action they did.

  • Stop and consider what might have made you take a similar decision or act in a similar way. Look to see if others have done similar things in the past.

  • Talk to the person and listen thoughtfully to their reasoning.

  • And most importantly, listen to your memory of Pat in the video describing how we may jump to conclusions -- try and take a stop-look-listen moment to fight the fundamental attribution error. If we see someone do something we don’t like, or if we seem them fail at something, we are likely to think the cause is something about them personally. The flip side is that if something good happens to us, we’re happy to take personal credit. In all cases, the real answer may be a more complex combination of situational and personal factors.

To build trust in your team, work hard to disrupt your human tendency to apply the fundamental attribution error.

Click Here, if you’d like to learn more about the online course on Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team. We have a sign-up form and will let you know as soon as we launch.