lessons learned: the fundamental attribution error

As I’ve been promoted and promoted and promoted again, I’ve had various conversations with other managers assessing the performance of others on the team. They’re frustrating. They’re good at this, but don’t do this right or that right. They’re problems in the way of our success.

While I felt all of these things from a management perspective, I also had the perspective of the employees, having done the same job and had the same struggles. From that perspective came this little voice in my head wondering why I was judging those people like this. Hey, man, those guys are doing the best they can inside of a broken system.

But I didn’t say anything. Perhaps my ego liked getting promoted, at least partly because of others’ “poor” performances, so I didn’t listen much to my little voice.

Now, a few years on, my boss is having the same conversations with me about my performance. I’ve let him down. He’s frustrated. I’m good at this, but I don’t do this right or that right. And now that I’m fully in the shoes of my teammates, not just partly, I realize my little voice was right.

We’re all susceptible to a cognitive mistake called the Fundamental Attribution Error – when we see someone doing something, we tend to think it relates to their personality rather than the situation the person might be in. I can remember reading the book Thinking, Fast and Slow during this time and my little voice naming that error, but I didn’t speak up.

In this situation, I think we were also committing another leadership error called the “people as problems” mindset, instead of viewing our teammates as key information-holders about the business we’re all trying so hard to improve.

A business is a bunch of interconnected systems that create a very specific context in each moment, for each person in it. If certain conditions arise out of those system interactions, making quick judgments and decisions without considering the systemic context is a way our brains try to take shortcuts instead of thinking rationally, and it’s a place where we can mess up.

As I move forward, I’m wary of others’ assessments of my performance and role, especially as we discuss taking important responsibilities off my plate. Maybe I shouldn’t be doing those things, but I can also imagine a different context where things could work out vastly different than they have in the past. And I hope I can second-guess myself in the judgment of others.

Peace and love.