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Fundamental Attribution Errors

Fundamental Attribution Errors are a classic cognitive bias we are all guilty of committing. Not just all of us as recruiters, all of us as humans.

Imagine this scenario: You were trying to finish prepping a candidate for an interview and you lost track of time and went over. You’re now going to likely be late to pick up your child at school. They’re special needs and will have a complete meltdown if you’re a moment past the expected time. You run out, jump in the car, and start speeding to the school. While driving, you inadvertently cutoff another driver.

You don’t feel bad. It was a mistake and you really need to get to the school to pick up your child.

Now, keep the circumstances the same. You’re late, you’re rushing, gotta get to school, and now a stranger inadvertently cuts you off in traffic. They’re an asshole. They’re a terrible driver. They don’t care about other people on the road.

An attribution error means we allow for circumstances to be the reason when we do something wrong, but when someone else does something wrong, it’s their character causing it. We make the assumption they’re a bad person.

Imagine another situation where a candidate reschedules an interview at the last minute. We assume a lack of professionalism. This is a bad candidate, and we are pulling them from the process. But I’m sure you’ve had to cancel a meeting at the last minute for a completely legitimate reason at some point in your past. Why is that excused, but we don’t give the same grace to a candidate?

Let’s say a client takes longer than expected to give us feedback. We assume they are a “bad client,” they aren’t prioritizing the requirement, and maybe we think they are disorganized or apathetic. Again, I’m sure there’ve been situations in business where you delayed feedback to a vendor, for a completely legitimate reason (circumstances), that didn’t have anything to do with an inherent character flaw.

When we step out of the situation and look in, it’s much easier to see.

So, what do we do about it? A few things:

  1. Understand the concept and recognize all humans have biases, and this is a big one
  2. Look for examples of it in your life. It’s easier to see in others than yourself
  3. When you find yourself judging someone else’s behavior, pause for reflection
  4. What situational factors might have influenced this person’s behavior?
  5. Find empathy. If you don’t have the details, make it an exercise in creativity

Jason and I did this with our kids growing up. Whenever they were upset with a situation, we’d ask them, what could be happening right now for that person which would excuse their behavior?

Asking this question puts you in the other person’s shoes, encourages creativity, and fights this very prevalent cognitive bias. Pay attention and notice it when you (or others) are exhibiting Fundamental Attribution Errors. Life is better when we’re aware.

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Tricia Tamkin, headhunter, advisor, coach, and gladiator. Tricia has spoken at over 50 recruiting events, been quoted in multiple national publications, and her name is often dropped in groups as the solution to any recruiters’ challenges. She brings over 30 years of deep recruiting experience and offers counsel in a way which is perspective changing and entertaining.

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