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March 27, 2013

Assuming the Best (tackling the fundamental attribution error)

March 27, 2013

It really bothers me when my friends and coworkers are late. I’m almost never late, to the point of annoyance for those who spend much time with me. It probably stems in part from my early teenage years, which I spent largely in forced seclusion (grounded) due to being late coming home nearly every time I went out. There’s nothing like spending nearly two years grounded to change one’s behavior!

I don’t make this point to tout my timeliness (or the strictness of my parents). Actually, the point is that I often find myself getting irritated (even angry) with the folks I care about when they are not as timely as I would like. I hate that about myself, and thusly I have begun to analyze my reactions and am working to change my behavior. Let’s just say I am still a work in progress.

My training as a sociologist has given me access to some theories and research around why it is that I react this way. More interestingly for you, dear reader, is that these same concepts might explain why we all react negatively to others when perhaps we shouldn’t.

The fundamental attribution error.

It is a cumbersome phrase for a universal social-psychological phenomenon. Stated simply, when others do not meet our expectations we tend to assume that it is due to some character or personality flaw. “Mikey (sorry Mikey) was late because he doesn’t respect my time,” or “Jeb (sorry Jeb) missed the meeting this morning because he is bad at managing his calendar.”

Here’s the interesting part. When looking at our own failings we don’t apply the same thinking. We don’t fall into the fundamental attribution error trap because we know, first hand, all of the factors that resulted in our being late or missing the meeting. We know that circumstances beyond our own control were at least mostly to blame for our own tardiness or absence.

So why is this important to understand? Knowing about the fundamental attribution error and avoiding falling into such thinking can do a couple of great things for us as individuals, and thusly for our relationships, particularly at work.

my angry coworkers

Imagine how much more genial our work relationships would be if we just assumed the best of one another. What if we didn’t find ourselves thinking all manner of negative things about our coworkers when they dared to call in sick, or show up late to meetings, or miss a deadline? What if instead we took them at face value when they said “traffic was all backed up,” or “I couldn’t get my daughter in to see the doctor until 10am?” What if we believed them when they said, “I’m sorry, but it was beyond my control.” Furthermore, what would be the impact on our own psychological states if we didn’t spend time and brain-space inferring slights and assuming the worst?

Our relationships would benefit greatly, and our stress levels would decrease. We could focus on producing better work and maintaining better relationships. We’d have a lot more fun and a lot less time wasted in the pursuit of imaginary insults.

To me, this relates to the first step to having a healthy work culture. Trust. We have to assume that our coworkers are honest, pro-social people who are worthy of our trust, and the benefit of the doubt. We know that unanticipated things happen and can cause us to appear unprepared or unconcerned. We know that people make honest mistakes that can have an impact on others. We know these things because we’ve done these things. We beg forgiveness, and expect it, when we fail to meet expectations. Shouldn’t we make the same allowance for our friends, family and coworkers?

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