Years of research suggests that we tend to hold other people to different standards than we hold ourselves.
For example: Your coworker turns in a project late, and you assume he’s a slacker. The next week, you turn in a project late, and you tell yourself it’s because you were preoccupied with relationship issues.
Psychologists call this phenomenon the “fundamental attribution error” or the “correspondence bias.”
Essentially, it’s the inclination to assume that other people’s behaviours are the result of personality flaws, while our own behaviours are attributable to situational factors.
According to Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, Ph.D., the fundamental attribution error has four main causes:
1. You’re not fully aware of the situation contributing to the person’s behaviour.
Your coworker may have been dealing with a family emergency this week, but there’s no way you could know that information unless he told you.
2. You have unrealistic expectations for the person.
You think that, even if you were dealing with a family emergency, you’d still manage to submit the project punctually. In other words, Gilbert says, you underestimate the power of certain situations to bring about certain behaviours.
3. Your interpretation of the person’s behaviour is exaggerated.
An outside observer might notice that your coworker apologizes sincerely when he turns in the project late. But you might interpret his apology as nonchalant and further confirmation of the idea that he’s a slacker.
4. You don’t correct your mistaken first impressions.
Even once you learn that your coworker was dealing with a family problem, you may be so busy that you don’t have the mental bandwidth to correct your belief that he’s lazy.
Writing in The Harvard Business Review, Susan David, Ph.D., a founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching, says perhaps the best way to combat the fundamental attribution error is to remember that you don’t really know your coworker that well at all.
You could be right — maybe he is lazy — but you should at least approach the situation by being open to learning more about him. After all, you’d probably want someone to treat you the same way.
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