Leadership Biases: Stop Letting Attribution Error Hold You Back

Jake Wilder
5 min readFeb 22, 2022

What It Is. Why We Do It. And How to Overcome It.

iStock/Vadym Pastukh

If I don’t respond to someone’s email, it’s because I’m busy. Or maybe I got tied up doing more important things. Either way, I had the best of intentions, it’s just that something else got in the way. But if someone doesn’t respond to one of my requests, it’s clear that they’re an inconsiderate jerk.

Or if I’m late for work, it’s because there was unexpected traffic or something else outside my control. But if someone else is late, it’s obvious that they’re just lazy.

If you spend any time around people, you’ll quickly see that while we tend to attribute our own problems to outside events, we’re happy to blame other people for similar issues. This attribution bias, or fundamental attribution error, causes us to over-emphasize internal motivations to explain someone’s behavior while under-emphasizing the situation factors.

In other words, we assume that someone’s actions tell us what “kind” of person they are, as opposed to considering the environmental factors that may have influenced their behavior.

We do this because it’s easy. Like all heuristics, it’s a mental shortcut that keeps us from having to think too hard. It’s much simpler to blame someone’s personality than take into account all of the situational factors that may be affecting them.

We also like predictability in dealing with other people. We want to know who we can trust and who we can’t. Internal traits are relatively stable. External events are changing all the time. Attributing someone’s behavior to their personality lets us categorize that person for future events. And again, we gain the benefit of not thinking very hard about that person in the future.

The problem, of course, is that it’s rarely accurate.

People Often Fail, But Not Because They’re Failures

One of the first lessons a new manager learns is that people rarely do what you ask them to do. The second lesson is that the fault almost always lies with the manager. Ninety percent of poor behaviors tend to be a result of miscommunication.

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Jake Wilder

I don’t know where I’m going. But at least I know how to get there.