Fellow leaders,

One of the key teachings in the book Switch is that the more we can turn people problems into situational problems, the more likely we are to see successful change—even when change is hard. And the more we can look at others with the mindset of”that’s the situation they are in” versus “that’s just the way they are,” the more likely we are to see real change. 

I wonder how frequently we commit the Fundamental Attribution Error? This is the fundamental error we make when we see someone’s behavior and jump to the conclusion that this is just the way they are. What if we were able to have a different first thought? What if our first thought could be: “How does the situation they are in virtually guarantee the behavior they are showing?” How would that thought impact how you respond as a leader?

Think about some of the common thoughts we entertain about others when we commit the Fundamental Attribution Error:

  • “He’s always late.”
  • “She’s always complaining.”
  • “He’s a glass-half-empty person.”
  • “She never communicates directly.”
  • “He’s always negative and critical.”
  • “She’s always careless.”
  • “He can’t get his work done.”
  • “She’ll never succeed at anything.”

Whether we say these things out loud or simply entertain those thoughts, we are committing the Fundamental Attribution Error.  In the short term it may feel good to commit this error and release some frustration, but we are unlikely to have any real impact on change as long as we are stuck with the thought “that’s just the way they are.” Remember: Living Systems theory says that our systems are perfectly set up to give the results we are currently experiencing.  Hmm…

If you think about it, there is a logical contradiction in the idea that people can’t change: The argument that you can’t change other people is actually self-contradictory, meaning something like “let me persuade you that people are unpersuadable.” People can change. Maybe they won’t always change, but they are far more likely to change when we can avoid the Fundamental Attribution Error.

There was once a guy who barely squeaked through high school. He had been kicked out of multiple classes. His GPA was in the basement. He was a troublemaker. That’s just the way he was (Fundamental Attribution Error). He managed to graduate, but definitely did not get the award “Most Likely to Succeed.” In fact, his class voted him most likely to be in an unsuccessful band twenty years later. Most had just written him off as a slacker. He managed to get into a small college, but only by being placed on indefinite academic probation. Almost everyone knew he lacked the discipline and intelligence to make it. After all, that’s just the way he was. And he kept proving them right. That is, he kept proving ALMOST everyone right.

There was one professor who actually saw something is this slacker—a psychology professor. This professor just didn’t buy into the dumb slacker narrative that everyone else had given the student. He saw something in that student that the student didn’t see in himself. One day he said to that nineteen-year-old: “You know, if you could find what you are really interested in, I believe you would apply yourself with an amazing amount of determination and commitment. I believe your study habits and focus will change dramatically the day you find that area of interest and passion.” And the professor helped the student discover that.

While almost everyone else committed the Fundamental Attribution Error, one professor saw the potential in that young man if only his situation was different. That student, whose GPA hadn’t budged much from his high school years, would go on to get his master’s degree and later his doctorate degree, graduating with a perfect GPA.  Not bad given the “least likely to succeed” and “that’s just the way he is” message that he had from back in high school.

Care to guess who that slacker was? 

With whom might you be committing the Fundamental Attribution Error? What would happen if you could shift your thinking from “that’s just the way they are” to “that’s the situation they are in?” I wonder what would happen? I wonder what would change? I wonder what the impact in your organization would be. I wonder.

Lead on,
Jeff (a former slacker)

Image by João Lavinha. Used under CC by 2.0 license.