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Fundamental Attribution Errors : Halo and Horns

Fundamental Attribution Error.  That’s a bit of a jargony opener for a post.

Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team is one of my core teaming programs.  It’s a powerful, yet simple model, that explains the 5 factors that can make or break and team.

Patrick talks about this weird little thing we all use called the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE).  How we consciously or unconsciously attribute a person’s actions to their character rather than the environment, while attributing our own behaviour to environmental factors outside of our control.   It’s a form of  bias.

In other words, while we cut ourselves some slack for our actions, we hold others accountable for their actions.  C’mon, be honest.  We see this playing out at home and work.

Let’s look at this  bias in action.


I’m late for work.  I can’t find my keys or my gear for the day.  I blame others, the dog who ate my work (yes, we’ve all been there).  I blame the traffic, the drivers (who I cut up blaming their poor driving).  In short, I blame my environment.  No siree, not my fault. The reality is I didn’t get my act together.  I could have been more organised, I could have left earlier.

My colleague arrives late for work.  Not the first time I think.  Remember the one time they were late for an important meeting, “ they’re lazy and disorganised”.  In that moment I labelled them, I created a bias that will shape how I view them in the future. Now, on this second lateness, my FAE filter hits the stage, arms crossed and sighing judgementally.  Let’s pause here – I know nothing about what’s going on for them.  I go racing into judgement, attributing their lateness to them “being disorganised, they’re always late” (selective perception kicking in there!).  In short, I attribute their lateness to their character, not the environment.  The opposite of what I do with myself.


I get a promotion.  I attribute this to my hard work, my skill, my abilities, I earned this.  Ego is flying high!

My colleague gets a promotion.  I attribute this to ‘they got lucky’, ‘right place, right time’, ‘they cosy up to the boss’ .. or whatever.  God forbid they may be stellar at what they do!

Here’s my challenge to you.  In the next few weeks listen out for these conversations playing out.  From yourself, from people around you.  Is it FAE bias coming into play?

If we can notice ourselves doing it, then you can bet your bottom dollar others do.  As a leader this impacts on credibility and trust, how we show up.  As a co-worker it creates relational friction which over time can lead to conflict.

To tip to correct this bias

When you become resentful at someone for a ‘bad quality’ shift your thinking to one of generosity.  Come up with 3-5 positive qualities they also exhibit.  This will balance out your perspective and help you view that person as a whole person instead of through the bias of a single negative quality.

Reach out if you want to take your team to the next level with our Team Transforming Performance programme.

More flow, less friction.  Way more fun!

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