Behavior is a Personal Challenge for Each of Us

HRDQ-U Blog | Behavior is a Challenge

Written by: Dr. Judith Cardenas

In Patrick Healy’s [1] article for Harvard Business School Online, “The Fundamental Attribution Error: What it is and How to Avoid it,” writes, “The most important and troubling error that professionals tend to make in their thinking may be the fundamental attribution error.”  Which he defines as:

… an individual’s tendency to attribute another’s behavior to their character or personality, while attributing their behavior to external situational factors outside of their control, that is, you tend to cut yourself a break while holding others 100 % accountable for their actions.


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As humans, we are eminently distracted by our biases, because our brains are “lazy”, in that we prefer to take shortcuts to our understanding of reality rather than doing the long and hard process of investigating the truth of what confronts us.  We are busy and rushed to keep things moving.  This fundamental attribution error applies to each of us – I think of myself as a kind person if I hold the door for another; I certainly seldom if ever consider myself a bad person.

Let’s remember that behavior is not a trait, even though we habitually impute behavior to character traits of personality.  This bias influences our personal lives as well as our work relations. It plays a consistent role in workplace dynamics like decision-making.  Work situations are full of opportunities in which our brains take shortcuts with judgments of issues at hand.  As Healy puts it: “In fact, it’s at the root of any misunderstanding in which human motivations have the potential to be misinterpreted. … In action, forming impressions of a person’s character based on limited information can have long-lasting effects – you may always view that person in a negative light.” Spirituality - Consciousness

Sadly, we often evaluate a colleague through this bias due to observed behaviors rather than genuine traits.  It might be why many companies no longer use the dreaded annual appraisal of employees that focus on behaviors in performance instead of the value the person makes to the company.

Healy suggests two remedies: combat this fundamental attribution error with gratitude.  “Try to make a list of five positive qualities the person also exhibits.”  But more important is “to become more emotionally intelligent – the buzzword in the business world for practicing self-awareness, empathy, and self-regulation.”

Take away:  Though impossible to overcome biases completely, one can acknowledge the cognitively to make a conscious effort to limit their effects to lessen hostility and build peace and collaboration.  Of the some 200 cognitive biases that hamper our relations, focusing FAE (fundamental attribution error) might be a good place to start being more human.


[1] Healy, Patrick, (2017); The Fundamental Attribution Error: What it is and How to Avoid it, Harvard Business School Online, June 8, 2017.

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