Fundamental Attribution Bias, Part Two

Leading and Learning, How to Leverage the Power of Bias towards Discovery and Leading with Grace

“Norman Mailer once wrote that there is a cruel but just law of life that says we must change or pay an increasing cost for remaining the same”

(Fitzsimons, 2017).

Nancy, from our last blog post, was laid off by her supervisor Carol. After that, she had to pick herself up quickly and move on and find another position. In case you missed it, the situation was summarized as a lack of communication between Nancy and her new supervisor Carol.

This resulted in a bias forming for each of them in regard to the other. The situation could be seen as a fundamental attribution bias, whereby Nancy and Carol each formed a judgment of the other that was not very malleable, within a given context, and it did not shift.  It was characterized by a pattern of avoidance. Carol avoided meeting and communicating with Nancy, and Nancy avoided confronting Carol about her behaviour.

Nancy had been very well equipped in the content and skill of her role, but there were a few places of bias that she had not had to face in her career to this point. Now she realized that this incident, though challenging and quite potentially devastating, had a lot of learning in it for her. Moving forward, Nancy had to meet herself anew in the next position that she took. 

Over the course of the year, in the avoid/avoid pattern that Nancy and Carol had allowed to develop, significant issues were overlooked, trust was low and critical organizational initiatives were not communicated clearly; key accountabilities were missed. After a few months, when cutbacks riddled the organization, it was not surprising that Carol eliminated Nancy’s position and Nancy was left to move on and continue to build her career in another place. How would Nancy recover?

As Nancy considered her last experience, she had many discoveries. She started to wonder how she might have acted differently in her previous position working with Carol. She identified a strong feeling of frustration and of vulnerability. Never before had she, a professional with a strong skill set and an outstanding reputation, been in a situation where her ability to foster a collaborative surrounding was so off base. What was at play here and how did she contribute to this situation?

After taking the time to reflect, Nancy realized that she had, in turn, avoided confronting the issue with Carol. She allowed the elephant in the room to thrive. It was very hard to make clear judgments when she was in this situation due to the emotional component and her own biases. After stepping out of the situation, Nancy began to see herself and aspects of the situation more lucidly and she made a conscious choice to leverage the power of her learning from this experience. She was open to seeing her unconscious bias in a way that she hadn’t been before.

Nancy became aware that her unconscious bias blurred her perspective while she was in the situation. If you do not see what is happening, Nancy reflected, then you can become part of the cycle by repeating your response. Becoming part of this pattern, she realized, was akin to the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Nancy realized that she kept repeating her same behaviour, hoping Carol would be more open, receptive and available. This turned out to be futile; what she really needed to do was shift her approach. She realized that a year had gone by and a consistent lack of variety in her response, was consistently yielding her the same result. At this point, Nancy allowed herself to really accept that she had a part in creating the ongoing cycle by not using a different strategy. She remained stuck and her creative abilities to address it were sadly absent. In her new job, Nancy decided to be a keen reflector in the first three or four months. She vowed to request feedback, act sooner and seek a variety of creative ways to approach the conflict and a supervisor who was avoiding.

Nancy continued to ponder how she might foster open and ongoing communication with a new supervisor, or anyone that might be tough to approach and connect with. She was more willing now to identify her own patterns of conflict avoidance that had become painfully and, almost surprisingly, obvious to her retrospectively. She even began to empathize with Carol’s perspective. As she began to better understand Carol’s situation and why Carol might be avoiding, Nancy speculated that the burden of overwhelm and initiative fatigue were certainly at play in the culture of her previous organization. Talking about this specifically, directly and concretely might have opened up the door for honest and worthwhile conversation and connection between the two of them.

As she delved deeper, Nancy also identified that she had not been feeling comfortable in her previous role. She realized that sometimes you need to read the situation and cut your losses and move on if there is no ability to influence or impact your situation in a healthy and organizationally oriented way. She discovered more awareness of her own limits of tolerance. This led to an additional perspective, that maybe she was lucky to have been laid off. By having this happen, the situation couldn’t worsen. It didn’t create a deep and lasting negative impact for Nancy, her health and her career advancement. Being exited could be viewed as a fortunate occurrence because staying too long could have created permanent scars as well as a label.

Nancy made a conscious choice to use the experience as a growth opportunity and she adopted the curiosity of an interested inquirer. She wondered what this could teach her and how this experience could bring positivity to her work in the new organization. She used this experience for self-inquiry, and as Declan Fitzsimons (2017) recommends, in the article, “Shakespeare’s Characters Show Us How Self-Development Should Happen”, doing this allows us to reveal something unexpected to ourselves, and perhaps, to others. It turns out, that being surprised ourselves is a precursor to leading with a learning presence. If I can’t learn and discover, I will have difficulty opening up this same possibility for others.

We are made up of many conflicting and unknown parts and, as Nancy realized, “I am not simply and exclusively who I say I am”. It is impossible to exclusively tell the world who I am, what I know and how I can carry out all the possibilities assigned to me. How am I to stand in this space vulnerable and truly human? I, Nancy realized, must be open to discovering, in each situation, what the world is ready to teach me.

In order to change ourselves we must first be willing to discover ourselves. Uncovering unconscious bias may be one of the strongest ways to open up our selves, and others, towards discovery and leading with grace.


Fitzsimons, D. (2017, January). Shakespeare’s characters show us how self-development should happen. Harvard Business Review. Found online 

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