There's been a lot written about cognitive biases in the last decade. If you walk into the Psychology section of Barnes of Noble today or browse Amazon for "decision-making," you're sure to see a library of books about how irrational humans can be.

Many cognitive biases affect humans and their everyday actions, like confirmation bias and overconfidence. But the most important, and troubling, error that professionals tend to make in their thinking may be the fundamental attribution error.

Cognitive biases such as these often shape how an individual interacts with the world around them. In the world of business, understanding these biases and becoming aware of the ways that they influence your behavior is vital to becoming a better manager.

What Is the Fundamental Attribution Error?

The fundamental attribution error refers to an individual's tendency to attribute another's actions to their character or personality, while attributing their behavior to external situational factors outside of their control. In other words, you tend to cut yourself a break while holding others 100 percent accountable for their actions.

For instance, if you've ever chastised a "lazy employee" for being late to a meeting and then proceeded to make an excuse for being late yourself that same day, you've made the fundamental attribution error. 

The fundamental attribution error exists because of how people perceive the world. While you have at least some idea of your character, motivations, and situational factors that affect your day-to-day, you rarely know everything that's going on with someone else. Similar to confirmation and overconfidence biases, its impact on business and life can be reduced by taking several measures.

Fundamental Attribution Error Examples

It's clear to see how the fundamental attribution error (FAE) can impact your personal life, but it's important to recognize the influence it can have on your work, as well. Whether you're an employee or manager, cognitive biases, like the FAE, can play a role in how you interact with others in the workplace and how you make key business decisions.

In working with your colleagues, for example, you probably form a general impression of their character based on pieces of a situation, but never see the whole picture. While it would be nice to give them the benefit of the doubt, your brain tends to use limited information to make judgments.

Within organizations, FAE can cause everything from arguments to firings and ruptures in organizational culture. In fact, it's at the root of any misunderstanding in which human motivations have the potential to be misinterpreted.

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For example, think back to the "lazy employee." Since she was late to an important meeting, you might be inclined to form a judgment of her character based on this one action alone. It's possible, however, that her behavior is due to several external, rather than internal, factors. For instance, any number of situational factors could have caused her to run behind schedule, such as a family emergency or traffic jam, which have nothing to do with the quality of her character.

In action, forming impressions of a person's character based on limited information can have long-lasting effects. Now that you perceive this person as "lazy," your opinions of her may begin to shift over time. Unless the opportunity arises for you to get to know your employee better, you may always view her in a negative light.

How to Avoid the Fundamental Attribution Error

Think of the last time you thought a co-worker should be fired or a customer service representative was incompetent. How often have you really tried to understand the situational factors that could be affecting this person's work? Probably not often.

The fundamental attribution error is so prevalent because it's rooted in psychology, so completely overcoming it can be difficult. One tool that can be helpful in combating FAE is gratitude. When you become resentful at someone for a bad "quality" they demonstrate, try to make a list of five positive qualities the person also exhibits. This will help balance out your perspective and can help you view your co-worker as a whole person instead of through the lens of a single negative quality.

Another method is to practice becoming more emotionally intelligent. Emotional intelligence has become a buzzword in the business world over the past 20 to 30 years, but it involves practicing self-awareness, empathy, self-regulation, and other methods of becoming more objective in the service of one's long-term interests and the interests of others. Practicing empathy, in particular, such as having discussions with co-workers about their opinions on projects and life out of the office, is a good first step.

FAE is impossible to overcome completely. But with a combination of awareness and a few small tools and tactics, you can be more gracious and empathic with your co-workers. In fact, being able to acknowledge cognitive biases like FAE and make the conscious effort to limit their effects is an essential component of becoming a better manager.

Are you interested in improving your managerial skills? Explore our eight-week online course Management Essentials and gain the skills and strategies to excel in decision-making, implementation, organizational learning, and change management.

This post was updated on February 14, 2020. It was originally published on June 8, 2017.

Patrick Healy

About the Author

Pat served as a member of the HBS Online Course Delivery Team and worked on the Economics for Managers course for the Credential of Readiness (CORe) program, Management Essentials, and Negotiation Mastery. Pat holds a B.A. in Economics and Government from Dartmouth College. In his free time, he enjoys playing tennis and strumming the guitar.