We are constantly under the influence of many biases. These biases are like invisible beings that distort our perceptions, impact our decision making, influence our beliefs about others and cause us to make judgments of others on a daily basis.
Over the course of a day, we make a number of attributions and these attributions can have in important impact on how we relate to and treat others.
The fundamental attribution error is a fascinating bias which explains why people often blame other people for things over which they usually have no control.
A prime example happened in my household the other day…my intention is not to throw my husband under the bus…just to share a recent example. I came home from town and was upset because someone had opened their car door into my car door and left a dent.
Immediately my husband launched into a small tirade that included, “Why did you park there? You should have parked somewhere else.” Interestingly enough, not long ago, he put a dent in his new trailer backing into our driveway.
In that case it was the fault of our neighbour who has a steel post at the end of his driveway which was the culprit that cause the dent. It had nothing to do with the driver of the truck, aka my husband, who has been backing into the driveway for 14 years with said post existing for all of those 14 years!
When I got a dent, it was my fault for my poor parking habits, when he got a dent, it was the neighbour’s fault!
“Fundamental attribution error, also termed as a cognitive bias in social psychology, or the attribution theory of social psychology, is defined as the tendency to judge a person in an unpleasant situation in a bad light, and attribute her/his behavior to internal causes and qualities rather than understanding the situation or circumstances that may cause the person to behave in that manner.
On the other hand, were we to make the same errors, we would easily attribute the causes to external factors. It is described as the overestimation of the attributes of another person’s personality and the underestimation of our own personal qualities in relation to a particular situation.”
Think about the last time a team member was late to a meeting or missed a deadline. What was your first thought? What was the judgment you were holding about that person? What was your inclination for blame?
What about the last time you interviewed someone for a new role? What judgments and attribution errors were you making throughout the interview process? How did those judgments impact your impression of that person and your decision on hiring?
“We judge others by their actions, and ourselves by our intentions.”
- Stephen Covey
Understanding how the attribution error bias impacts how we work and live with others can have a profound effect on our relationships. There are some additional explanations and great examples outlined in this article.
Why Is Blame So Toxic?
Dr. John Gottman identifies ‘blame’ as an example of defensiveness which is one of the Four Horsemen that predicts relationship failure.
Dr. Gottman talks about defensiveness as a technique people use to protect themselves and project the blame onto the other person. This deflection and blame is designed to make us feel better about ourselves but unfortunately shuts down the other person and erodes the relationship.
Recently I was speaking with a leader who was struggling to get one of his team members to meet deadlines. “I’m so frustrated. I don’t know what to think. Is she lazy, or unmotivated, or just not able to handle the job?”
We went on to explore a series of questions about the situation…
“Is this a pattern with her or a one-time situation”
“What have you tried to set her up for success?”
“Does she understand what you expect and where she is falling short?”
“What’s the accountability schedule? Did you have check-ins at regular intervals throughout the project timeline?”
As we examined a number of these questions the answer this leader landed on was that he was feeling guilty he hadn’t spent enough time with this individual and had not checked in with her on a regular basis to make sure she was on track and understood the scope of the project and the nature of the deadlines.
His feelings of guilt around his own leadership shortcomings turned into blaming her for not doing what he expected her to do.
In this short video Brené Brown describes ‘blame’ as “one of the reasons we miss our opportunity for empathy.”
Tips to Stop The Blame Game
I love this line, “Unconscious bias is like gravity: it is powerful and unseen!” We all judge and we all hold biases. Blaming others is a way to make ourselves feel better about who we think we are. By being aware of this we can make a plan to mitigate the damage this judgment and blame can do to our relationships.
- Catch yourself blaming. Become aware when you jump to a conclusion about someone or have an initial ‘blaming’ thought about a person. Awareness is the first step!
- Ask yourself, “What’s the assumption attribution I am making about this person?” “Am I attributing their behaviour to their personality trait or am I considering outside influences, including my own role in the situation?”
- Check out your assumptions. Get curious and ask the person a question without judgment. “I noticed you missed the deadline we agreed to last week. Is everything ok?”
- Practice, practice, practice. Practice asking questions without blame. This is actually a challenging thing to do because blame has become such a habit. One way to practice is to replace the word ‘why’ with another word like ‘how’ or ‘what’.Instead of“Why were you late with that assignment?” try stating the facts without judgment, “I noticed you were late with that assignment. What got in your way? Is there something I could have done to provide more support?”
To follow up on the car dent attribution error, had my husband not launched into the tirade I could have shared with him that I parked a considerable distance from the store in a spot where there were no vehicles parked anywhere close to me as I felt the chances were greater that no one would choose to park next to me. I did everything I could to avoid what happened…the rest was outside my control.
How’s your blame game going? How is it impacting your relationships?
- Unconscious Bias Part 1: Are You Seeking to Prove Yourself Wrong?
- Feedback for success: Candor Without Blame
- Are You An ‘All Knowing’ Captain of Your Ship?
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