The Fundamental Attribution Error In Action

March 11, 2012

At an event I recently attended, a senior leader gave his organization a presentation on how to handle conflict. He said a lot of things I agreed with, i.e. conflict is inevitable and try to be part of the solution when conflict arises. As good as some of his advice sounded, a fundamental flaw in his assumptions caused me to learn more about him as a leader than anything new about his presentation topic.

He framed the beginning of his presentation by asking his audience “do you have a complaint against this organization?” A few minutes later he asked this rhetorical question again and then followed it immediately with “don’t you trust your leaders?”


He never saw it, but in that moment he exposed his true beliefs – “if you have a complaint about this organization, then there must be a problem with you.” He never once said “it’s our responsibility as leaders to care about your complaints and to partner with you to fix what is broken.” It was a classic example of the fundamental attribution error in action.

Even though his rhetoric encouraged creative conflict, I can guarantee you that his behavior at work discourages real dissent. He is unable to perceive that his theory in action is different than his espoused theory. Alas, his “wisdom” will keep him from really learning, and his own learning disability will constrain his organization’s ability to learn and grow.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Comments (20)

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  1. Bret,
    I couldn’t agree with you more. By stating that if someone disagrees with the leadership it is their fault/problem, it automatically shuts the employees down. They will immediately close up because his comments, as the leader, suggest that he has taken a side. I imagine that he, as the leader, already believes that he is on a higher plane than his employees and they must learn to deal with anything they disagree with. Great post!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    He did not know he stated it, Brandon, but his words betrayed his true thoughts. thanks! Bret

  2. Matthew Dent says:

    Very valid point Bret! I appreciate this example, it paints a vivid picture of an all to familiar occurrence. We are perceived based on the words you use and in the context we use them. Great post.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Matt. I’m meeting with Tara this afternoon to help her with a video blog. Better choose my words carefully! Thanks for sharing. Bret

  3. Larry Beck says:

    Bret —

    Your post struck a cord with me. Attribution happens routinely in many workplaces, probably more so than we recognize.

    I have seen many managers who fall into this trap often. They lament poor outcomes and rather than to looking at their leadership and/or on the processes their staff works with; they instead attribute these outcomes to bad behavior on the part of the employees. The resulting fallout is very damaging.

    More telling is the gap it creates between managers and employees. Because it is bad employer behavior (in the minds of these managers), things like process improvement or a critical look at one’s leadership never make it to the table. Instead, if the employees can’t make things work, these managers either decide to push their staff harder or let people go. This is an organization that will never get past mediocre as engagement is compromised.

    Unfortunately, this is a condition that exists strongly in many organizations. Great post!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome back, Larry. So very well said. I hope folks find your comments here and consider them carefully. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  4. Hi Bret,
    My first time here and I thought you made a very important point with this post. We now know from neuroscience findings that our (social) brains are always signaling threat and rewards signs.
    Conflict is caused by a complex set of emotions that’s driven internally and externally.
    Your example of a well intended senior leader sending double messages is exactly the kind of thing that happens on many levels of an organization that thwarts honesty.
    All organizational leaders must understand that building safety zones for emotional sharing takes a long time for most employees to trust.
    Thx for raising this!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Louise! Great points. I think we all send double messages we are not even aware of, but for senior leaders, it’s just critical that they are even more aware of how their assumptions affect the behavior of others. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  5. Dan says:

    Hi Bret — Great post as always, and the links to your other posts on Attribution Error also provide an insightful look at this phenomenon. And I’m in total agreement with your conclusions.

    It is such a common phenomenon that I now wonder how we actually can intervene. I think Argyris would agree that even if we talk about the phenomenon, it won’t just go away. We can see it happening in others, as you and probably many others did with the senior leader making the presentation, but then continue to have a very difficult time seeing it in ourselves. For example, I constantly encourage leaders to ask, “How am I contributing to the very problems I say I want to solve,” then come to find that when it is my turn, I’m just about as blind as I could be — even though, hidden within that data, is often an incredible source of personal learning and growth.

    So, how can we use our awareness? Over time, my take on the solutions to the Attribution Error has evolved toward greater and greater inwardness. First, focusing on the process of learning to ask for feedback; second, studying our own personal processes of defending, including understanding what it is we are defending and our typical style for doing so; and third, understanding the trend lines in our own growth and development — the positive personal meaning of our development across time.

    If we do that work, when we see the Attribution Error in action what comes forward might be less an indictment and judgment (we are, after all, looking in a mirror) than personal humility and compassion. The leader you observed is someone who needs assistance, just as we all need that same support. The question is how best can we help that person, knowing that whatever help we might offer is also, fundamentally, for ourselves — and a question of our ability and willingness to rise to one of the most ruthless challenges of personal leadership. A question that comes to mind, for example, is how could the senior leader be approached with helpful data about the problem with his presentation in a way that bypasses the need for the protection offered by the Attribution Error, and what does that have to do with me (or you) as the messenger? I can see the senior leader reading your post, recognizing himself, and saying, “Bret didn’t really understand my presentation” — a perfect example of what Argyris called a “self-sealing” process of not being able to discuss what is not being discussed. And I can see some messenger trying to explain the problem with the presentation to the leader in a way that judges and blames the leader for judging and blaming.

    And so to me, that’s the real problem — that we actually don’t have very good ways to talk to each other and help each other. And that’s not the fault of leaders alone, as it is a shared problem within the larger, more complex issue of our sense of community, including our willingness to give and receive help, our faith in one another and ourselves, and with the way traditional organizations make it unsafe for people to be themselves and be real beyond their roles. It’s a problem in the way we value true growth, learning and wisdom within our culture — it’s not just about systems, per se, but about better ways to become the people we are meant to be, to live rather than just produce.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Brilliant, Dan. The real question really is how can I help.. and I’m not sure how. I hope folks will scroll down and give careful consideration to your comments. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  6. One of the best leadership blog posts, and probably the best comment threads, I have read in years. So first and foremost, thank you all.

    Our language of leadership may be evolving from one of separation and hierarchy to one of community, engagement, and shared purpose, but it is certainly slow to do so. From the earliest, we are steeped in perceiving leaders in terms of hierarchy: leaders, we are told, are decisive. Dominant. Fearless. Aggressive. They are givers of orders.

    Small wonder that when ordinary folks make the turn to managing others, managing managers, or managing groups, they carry these patterns with them. Organizational life has sanded their corners; tenure has given them some reliable allies and skill in navigating the political landscape. Perhaps a few rounds of management and leadership training and a 360 or two have filled in some valuable skills and positive behaviors… but something fundamental is missing. It’s the leap from “they report to me” to “I am responsible for their experience of being around me.”

    By definition this shift at least begins to break up the self-sealing process – the “personal defensive routine” that mimics (and by necessity supports) the organizational defensive routines in which the leader participates.

    There is a strong sense of safety and a lot of history behind the firewall of those routines, and I think that is part of the reason why the picture in the mirror remains a little blurry for so many of us (likely myself included). The paradox, of course, is that the illusion of safety is just that. The best coaches I’ve seen are capable of exposing this illusion for what it is and helping leaders through the process of unlearning all that history despite how difficult and unpredictable that process can be. I sincerely hope to be more like those coaches.

    Meanwhile, I’ve definitely found a blog worth reading, and reading often.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Jonathan. So glad you found my blog and contributed to this conversation! The comments on this particular post have been exceptional, and that includes yours. Your comments are rich with insight, I hope folks will find them and chew on them. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  7. davidburkus says:

    Have you ever checked out the Abringer Institute’s “Leadership and Self-Deception?” It’s a great read – a parable on overcoming fundamental attribution error.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I read that a few years back, David. It was good but for me did not live up to the hype. I’m not a big fan of parables… Thanks for sharing. Bret

    Dan Reply:


    I agree with you, David. “Leadership and Self-Deception” is a great read — although like Bret, I’m not so thrilled with parables (I get impatient with them). I’ve referred some clients to this book and I believe it’s been useful to them, as it has been for me. “Immunity to Change” by Kegan and Lahey can also be of real value. The problem I see with books (including my own) is that they require reflection and a readiness to learn and to move past defensiveness, and some of that defensiveness is often quite subtle, to the point of invisibility to the client. In the great example Bret provides in this post, my question is how do we best help? The conversations among the leaders, as they are framed in Leadership and Self-Deception, require pretty amazing skills, and are necessarily for the purposes of the book a bit artificial.

    In reality, if we wanted to intervene with Bret’s senior leader, for example, how would we do it? Would we say, “Hey, I had a reaction to your presentation. Would you mind if I shared a few impressions with you?” Could we do that out of the blue? Could it be done by anyone in the company? At any time? Maybe even during the leader’s presentation? If not, why not? And how would we address the barriers from outside in as well as inside out?

    I’m engaged in what appear to be a life-time kinds of questions, I guess. What does truly help a leader “get out of the box” in the moment without the leader already being interested, from the inside out, in their own growth and development along these lines? Maybe this is a conference topic or some other type of collaboration!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I like how you frame the conversation starter with the leader, Dan. I think many of us want to intervene but struggle with the specifics of how to help. How does someone get out of a box they don’t think exists for them? Not easy! thanks for sharing. Bret

    Dan Reply:

    Indeed, that’s the question! A good blog topic! Thanks again for putting up your story, Bret, and creating such a gracious forum for discussion.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    This was a very rich discussion, Dan. There is SO MUCH more in this comment thread than in my original observation. Thanks for contributing! bret

  8. Beth says:

    Bret, Nice post. All good points so far.

    I love the concept of Attribution Error — it was what turned me on to your site to begin with — but in this case, I had an issue just with the way the leader phrased the question: “Do you have a complaint against this organization?”

    Talk about loaded language! Even if I had trusted my leadership up to that point, a question like that, thrown out in a public gathering, would certainly set off my “Dysfunction Alert!” warning system.

    Because, if I am sitting there and I am to any degree at odds with any part of the organization’s complex world, it is now framed as a complaint. A complaint — not a comment, suggestion, question, observation, hypothesis, or potential brilliant money-making idea. So the message is: dissent = whining.

    And using the word “against”??? Talk about adversarial! Now it’s me versus everyone else, from the boardroom to the showroom. Thanks, Goliath, but this little David is keeping her thoughts to herself!

    There is not only an attribution problem here, there is an intimidation problem — which leads me to think that grass roots innovation is pretty much dead in this environment. Management that feels justified expressing itself in this was has probably already killed off any elegant organic process improvement they otherwise could have encouraged. By jamming all communication into such an extremely contentious framework, then inserting a blame factor (“don’t you trust us?”) they might as well post signs on the walls that say Shut Up.

    How funny that the topic was conflict management. I hope the rest of the presentation did damage control. One thing ZI know: managing conflict doesn’t mean manufacturing conflict just so you can indulge in passive-aggressive control tactics.

    True, that sound bite sorely needed editing, but honestly, who would stick their neck out to tell the Big Guy he was off target? After all, that would be complaining, wouldn’t it?

    Thanks, Bret, for pointing out the smell-ephant in the room!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome back, Beth. As always, your observations are very insightful. You really, really do need to start blogging!! You have so much to offer. Thanks for sharing here! Bret