Imagine this situation: you are walking down the corridor at work and a colleague is coming the other way. You say ‘hi’ in a bright and friendly tone and this person barely looks at you, has a cross look on their face and hardly greets you. What assumptions would you make about why the person acts like this? Would you immediately think ‘what a rude and unfriendly person who is very arrogant’? If so, you have just made what is known as a Fundamental Attribution Error, one of the psychological theories that might explain how a conflict situation might get started or escalates.
Attribution theory tells us that people make inferences about others behaviours based on 2 different factors: situational and dispositional. In other words, we explain the actions of others sometimes based on ‘characteristics’ that we attribute to them or their ‘disposition’ and sometimes we explain things based on the context of the behaviour i.e. the ‘situation’.
However, being human, theorists have discovered that we sometimes make mistakes in how we attribute behaviours to other people and indeed to ourselves. This is called Fundamental Attribution Error and it tells us that we have a tendency to attribute negative behaviours of others to dispositional factors whereas our own negative behaviours we rationalise away as ‘situational’. To put it simply, if someone is racing down the road breaking the speed limit perhaps, we tend to think they are ‘macho drivers’ who don’t care about other people’s lives. If we ourselves however put the accelerator down, we explain it as ‘just this one time I have to go a bit faster as it’s an important meeting and I don’t want to be late’.
How does this relate to how we manage conflict?
It means that in many of the situations where two people are disagreeing or in dispute over something, frequently they are making the fundamental attribution error and attributing negative assumptions as to why someone has done something. This attribution in turn is further fuelling their negative reactions to what the person has done. In other words, if someone fails to send the email on time or gives some negative feedback, not only is the person upset about the missed email deadline or hearing criticism but they are also further triggered by making a negative attribution as to why someone might have done this in the first place.
When these problems occur, often it is difficult to get over them. We see and deal with the same person day after day, and our negative feelings just intensify; it can be very difficult to ground them. The only realistic way to overcome this is to change the way we think and ask the right questions rather than assuming answers to the wrong ones; this was we can begin to handle the situation more appropriately.
If we fail to question our assumptions then we are likely to feel resentful, angry and frustrated. Work relationships get progressively strained and we feel the need to get rid of our own bad feelings about the other person possibly by bad mouthing them or persuading other colleagues to go against them and side with us.
What can we do to lessen the effects of Fundamental Attribution Error?
Fundamental Attribution Error is in many respects a result of our lack of knowledge. We make unfavourable assumptions because we are unaware of the real motivations behind their behaviour. It is important to step back and consider other possibilities; for instance try to imagine alternative scenarios that could explain the behaviour.
Doing this isn’t always easy. Anger and frustration are powerful emotions, and overcoming these feelings doesn’t come easily to most of us. Often some kind of third party mediation is necessary, but there are several ways in which we can move forward. Some examples of these are given below:
- Build trust – trust is one of the most important factors in creating and maintaining a harmonious workplace and where there is trust between people fundamental attribution error is less likely to occur. Trust is a workplace ethos that involves the whole workplace culture and there are many ways in which it can be encouraged. For instance there should be opportunities for colleagues to get to know each other and build trust. As individuals there is also much that we can do to engender trust; this involves ensuring that we are always trustworthy, and that we default to the trusting rather than distrusting others. The more we know and trust each other the less likely we are to make erroneous negative assumptions about each other.
- Be objective – rather than taking to heart the reasons why a colleague has acted in such a way, it can help if we are able to be objective about it. If you feel angry, then consider that it wasn’t their intent to make you angry.
- It isn’t about you – realise that ‘it’s not all about me’ …while me might like to think that other people’s behaviour is ‘to get at me’, it’s much more likely that you are the last person they have in mind when they do this. Try not to take it personally, even if it does cause you pain, and never try to ‘get your own back’.
- Consider their circumstances – as we said above, we need to step back and consider other possibilities. If somebody is performing poorly, then it might not be their fault; their poor performance could be a result of their environment. Consider what external factors might be at play and make allowances for them.
- Talk about it – if you find that you are having problems with a colleague then the best way of handling them is to talk about it. This requires a level of trust and maturity, but simply sitting down together and going through the issues informally can reap huge rewards.
Fundamental attribution error is a common workplace phenomenon. People come to erroneous conclusions about the capabilities, characters and motivations of others. Simply being aware that we tend to do this can improve the situation considerably.
When you find yourself feeling negative about a work colleague ask yourself if there are other factors that are in play. If you can imagine how external factors might be affecting them, then attempt to put yourself in their shoes and consider how you might react.
Following some of the suggestions listed above really can help, so give them a go. Remember, just as we make fundamental attribution errors over others, others may well make fundamental attribution errors over us.