Fundamental Attribution Error

Common Cognitive Biases and Negative Outcomes for Individuals and Organizations:

“Systematic errors are known as biases, and they recur predictably in particular circumstances.” (From Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) by Daniel Kahneman – Nobel Prize in Economics)

Nancy has been a leader at a private company for just over a year.

During this time, she has been looking, listening and finding out all that she can about the company’s culture and explicit ways of doing business while fulfilling the mandate of a newly created role. Nancy has demonstrated strong outcomes in her previous roles and that is why she has been hired.

As time goes on, Nancy is a little surprised that her supervisor, Carol, has been distant. It has been difficult for Nancy to book time to get the direction and feedback that she needs to carry on with integrity and alignment. She feels that she has done her part to solicit direction and feedback from Carol, and anyone in the organization that can provide her with the milestones, signposts and ideas to carry her work forward.

When unexpected financial constraints come into the picture, Nancy’s role is deleted. No direct feedback about her performance was given to her prior to this. Indirect feedback reveals that Nancy’s supervisor, Carol, was not pleased with her work and felt that she asked too many questions and did not have the skills to lead with confidence. One can only speculate that a difference in leadership paradigms may have been in play here.

As you can imagine, this situation was devastating to Nancy and to her contribution to the organization as a whole.

A key point is that there was little feedback to Nancy prior to the role deletion and little conversation subsequent to it.

Nancy, had, for all intents and purposes, been labelled by her supervisor and when financial constraints came to bear, her position was deleted.

This story may serve as one example of cognitive bias on the part of her leader, Carol, and be experienced as subsequent confusion by Nancy. In this instance a judgment appears to have been made about Nancy.

This leader, Carol, one can speculate, was probably busy with the many demands of her executive role and didn’t take, or have, the time to collect a well rounded representation of Nancy’s actual work results for the organization. The critical point here is that Carol used a limited sample of results and specific evidence, and that which she did use may have been impacted by a cognitive bias.

Perhaps Carol was not looking with a neutrally oriented and evidence based eye, or with a mind to understanding Nancy’s context. Carol’s mind was made up and there seemed to be no opening for a conversation, or a change in the perspective of the leader who may have completed her appraisal with haste given the overwhelming responsibilities that she was carrying.

And, one can speculate, that perhaps Nancy reciprocated the cognitive bias of labelling her supervisor as well.

At first blush, the term cognitive bias sounds like a theoretical concept that doesn’t have much relevance.

Cognitive bias often comes into play in our relationships with others, in the workplace and In families. As shown in Nancy’s example, when this happens there can be negative consequences for people and organizations.

For leaders, the challenging aspect of cognitive bias is that it can trip us up if we are unaware. It is critical to be open to recognize cognitive bias in the decisions and actions of those around us. The above story shows the cognitive bias called fundamental attribution error. It is quite common in workplace contexts.

Fundamental attribution error occurs when someone is labelled. It could translate to a reputation of being lazy, having a lack of confidence or being inflexible. The person being labelled might be in a challenging situation dealing with unknown and unexplored factors, but when the label is given it often sticks beyond the time and context of which it was applied, impacting future advancement opportunities.

If new situations and changing circumstances arise, the employee may meet them differently, but it may not be noticed if the fundamental attribute, or label, is not re-examined or readjusted based on seeing the employee, and their current evidence based contributions, with an open mind. Do you have any experience of this? Have you, or anyone in your family had this experience?

Breakdown in communication is a pivotal aspect of fundamental attribution error. If I have labelled that person, then it may preclude any conversations or openness in our interactions. It can be difficult for this person to ‘break free’ of this label and it can impact present and future career trajectory or business relations or family interactions.

How can you learn to recognize when you might be doing this? When others may be doing this? It is a discernment that is critical for leaders, for direct reports and for organizations.

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