Provo, Utah-based VitalSmarts helps organizations improve results through internal behavioral changes. Through corporate training, VitalSmarts focuses on teaching organizations how to hold people accountable, improve leadership and fix problems. “We teach the skills people need to hold effective dialogue about the toughest issues,” CEO Andrew Shimberg said.
One of the mistakes I would make – and it wasn’t a one-time mistake, but a repeating pattern – is I would make something called the “fundamental attribution error.” When someone else behaves badly, someone that you are working with or a family member, we usually explain that bad behavior by associating bad intent, bad motives; it’s kind of a character flaw. And because of that we’re very quick to tell ourselves stories that usually turn the other person into a bit of a villain, because of what they did.
What’s really interesting is, when we act badly – and given enough time, any of us are going to act badly – we don’t explain it away with bad intent, or a bad motive or a character flaw. We do something very, very different. We explain it situationally: “I acted like that because I was rushed or I was distracted or having a horrible day today; the situation that caused me to act like that was sort of a one-time event.”
Early in my career, I saw behavior from other team leaders that felt competitive, it felt combative, and I would interpret that using the fundamental attribution error. Using that lens, I attributed it to bad intent and bad motives. And my reaction was to go silent. If it was a card game, I would be holding my cards closer. I’d be careful with the information I would share at those meetings. I got very guarded, and I would characterize the peer as difficult to work with, and I would invent a lot of workarounds to achieve goals, versus how to work collaboratively with that other leader.
It wasn’t good, it wasn’t a one-time event, but I didn’t see it happening at the time, so it was invisible to me as I’m sure it’s invisible to others when they commit the fundamental attribution error.
The consequences? As I think back, it didn’t keep us from achieving our goals, but we never helped the enterprise as much as we could have if I would have worked more collaboratively with that other leader. I think we could have gotten even better results as an enterprise. The lack of collaboration, when that happened, probably sub-optimized the relationship with that other team leader and the results we could have created together.
Given enough time, any of us are going to act badly.
Once I learned what a fundamental attribution error was, it allowed me to see when that was happening. Now, when that happens – and given enough time, you’re going to see anyone act badly – you stop and you think of questions. I like to ask, “Why could that person be acting that way? What could be causing it?”
It’s most likely not bad intent, bad motive, so what’s the situation that is causing this person to be acting that way that doesn’t feel right? Just by asking that question, it stops the mind from running those stories, and then creating those villain stories about the other person, which tends to get you worked up and in my case would get me going silent. I think for some people it probably causes a reaction of lashing out, maybe trying to get even.
But by asking those questions and stopping the fundamental application error from happening, it allows you to establish a much more collaborative relationship with peer teams, with direct employees, with family members. Learning what fundamental attribution error was, learning how to spot it in the moment, and do something about it, has made me a better husband, a better father, a better CEO and a better colleague with executive team peers.
I absolutely believe it’s at the root. If you think of what gets us in trouble at work and at home, it’s when we tell ourselves stories and those stories are primarily driven because we committed the fundamental attribution error.
If you actually get underneath that story, there’s typically a lot of bad assumptions or bad conclusions. I would suggest it actually happens most of the time in organizational failures. Most projects actually don’t succeed. I believe a lot of them are driven by bad stories driving further bad behavior. This little lesson can solve a lot of damaged relationships and lack of business results.
Now I ask myself, “Why isn’t that taught earlier in our lives? Why did it take a fairly long career to come across it?”
I don’t know the answer to that, but those are some of the insights and lessons that I wish I’d come across earlier.
VitalSmarts is on Twitter at @VitalSmarts.