Attribution Error

“My personal leadership goal: to assume positive intent in others.” –Bruce Avolio

The most common mistake that leaders make every day without realizing it is attribution error:

Jumping to incorrect conclusions about someone’s behavior—and believing our perspective is fact.

We observe a behavior, and we instantaneously create a story explaining the behavior. This becomes attribution error when we treat our faulty explanation as if it is a fact. We do this so fast that we aren’t even aware of our instant jump; we are oblivious to the other possible explanations for the person’s actions or words.

For example, John’s boss Carol gave him a last-minute task of presenting a big idea to the CEO of the company.  

The story through John’s eyes:

“I just worked non-stop for the last 24 hours to prepare the briefing, and then, during my presentation, Carol kept falling asleep at the back of the room. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she left right after the briefing without saying a word to me. She’s obviously disinterested, and she probably doesn’t care about me.”

This kind of leap happens every day.  We want to make sense of others’ behavior, and we jump to conclusions.  Then we confirm our views by selectively paying attention to what follows. Our view is quickly cemented in our mind as truth.

By following this cycle, we undermine trust and sow the seeds of discontent.  Have you experienced this?  Have you been on the receiving end?  Of course you have.  We all have.

In the story above, it turns out that John’s boss has a nephew who was hit by a car and is on life support in a hospital an hour away.

Here is the story through her eyes:  

“With my nephew in the hospital, I need to be there for my sister and her son.  Luckily, I have John on my team who can do the briefing. Our CEO concurs that this is a perfect opportunity for John to gain experience.  After being up all night, I drove the hour to be in the room for the briefing, but I made it clear to the CEO that I was just there for moral support and wanted John to have complete autonomy on this one.  Afterwards, before jumping back on the road, the CEO and I had a quick word, which gave me the opportunity to tell him how well I thought John did.”

But John doesn’t know this. He’s jumped right to some negative conclusions and is treating them as fact. Let’s interrupt this story. How could John take action to counteract his tendency for attribution error? What could he do to interrupt treating incorrect assumptions as facts?

John’s story, version 2:

“When I felt myself getting frustrated about my boss falling asleep during my presentation (and then her running off without saying a word afterwards), I called a personal ‘time out’ and stepped to the balcony for a minute. I reminded myself that I always assume the best in others and that Carol probably had a good reason for behaving that way. After grabbing a cup of coffee and taking some deep breaths, I went to get on her calendar so I could talk to her about it. It would take some courage and genuine curiosity on my part, but I wanted to engage with her directly about my perspective on what happened.

I imagined myself starting the conversation off like this: ‘Carol, I’d like to get some feedback from you on my presentation to the CEO. And, to be honest, I felt myself worrying that you didn’t think it was great. I saw you nodding off in the back of the room.’

But when I got to Carol’s office, her assistant filled me in on what was going on with her nephew and how she had been up all night. That explained a lot. I’m so glad I didn’t spend the whole weekend going down a negative spiral in my mind.”

If you are behaving as an exceptional leader, what will you do the next time you are in a situation like this?

Consider these three rules of thumb as you continue to grow as a leader:

  1. Assume the best in others;

  2. Hold your initial views loosely; and

  3. Be curious and seek to understand (engage with the person).

In Closing: To be exceptional requires us to be tuned-in and aware of our biases and to notice when we conflate assumptions and facts. Leaders—all of us—have a responsibility to not only assume the best in others, but to also engage with them in conversation to clarify what is really going on. Don’t get stuck in your head: Assume the best AND seek to understand the bigger story.  

Author Note: Attribution error is similar to–but different from–Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)–which is our tendency to emphasize negative intentions or character traits to explain someone else’s bad behavior while we explain away that same behavior in ourselves based on the circumstances of our situation. Stated another way, we judge others by their actions but ourselves by our intentions.