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Fundamental Attribution Error

Mike Cottmeyer Chief Executive Officer
Reading: Fundamental Attribution Error

Anybody ever heard of this phenomenon? Here is the definition from Wikipedia:

In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect) describes the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors. The fundamental attribution error is most visible when people explain the behavior of others. It does not explain interpretations of one’s own behavior – where situational factors are often taken into consideration.

When we talk about methodology and roles, how often do we attribute to the methodology… or the role… some sort of evil bias? How easy is it to dismiss traditional project managers as command-and-control, when in reality, these people are doing the best they can, given the situation in which they find themselves? Do we acknowledge that these people are only doing what the organization expects of them?

How often do we give a failed Agile project a pass, maybe on the basis that they ‘tried’ or were ‘fighting the good fight’, but view every failed waterfall project (and the traditional project manager running it) as incompetent? Do we ever acknowledge that people in these projects might just be playing the hand they were dealt? Working within the system they were hired to support? That the very structure of the organization around them accommodated no other way of moving forward?

If we want people to behave differently, we have to be able to influence the systems that are driving their behavior. I’m telling you guys, much of what we talk about in the agile community does not play well in the environments where many traditional project managers find themselves. Company culture and organizational structure drive behavior. Until you address those fundamental structures, meaningful change will be hard to come by.

The problem isn’t the people involved, or even the leadership… the problem is the system in which those people are operating within. People want to be successful, but if the system around them is not conducive to empowerment and self-organization, people are going to change until the system changes. Authorized teams, without the appropriate organization to support that authorization, will expose both the company and the individual to an unacceptable level of risk. We’ve got to acknowledge that risk and help people deal with mitigating it.

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Comments (2)

  1. Justin Searls

    Great comment, Mike.

    The broader revelation of Actor-observer bias is easy to convey to people using the nearly universal experience of driving. For instance, on a highway, it seems to me that anyone tailing me who wants to go 5mph faster is being rude and pushy, while anyone going 5mph slower than me and holding me up is clearly inconsiderate of the rush that I'm in.

    Meanwhile, we never explain our own driving habits by assigning personal traits (e.g. "I drive fast because I'm a maniac"), we explain them situationally ("I was in a rush to make an appointment in time").

    Once people become cognizant of the actor-observer bias, they at least have a fighting chance to work to compensate for it. However, I've only succeeded (and expect this to be true of most people) when I've shared in the experience about which I'm discussing.

    Because I've played a number of roles on traditional waterfall projects, I can lean on that experience to take a stab at reducing my comment to just the systemic structural issues, as opposed to turning an archetypical person or role into a rhetorical strawman or whipping boy.

    This realization has led to a completely separate bias—against platitudes criticizing anything (waterfall included) when the speaker lacks much first-hand experience.


  2. Dimitris Gkiokas

    Great post, Mike!

    It really helps better define and clarify what the Fundamental Attribution Error is.

    I personally used to commit the Fundamental Attribution Error on a consistent basis – leading to a lot of bad decisions and maybe even some damaged relationships with people…

    While at the same time I always “cut myself some slack” – falling prey to FAE completely.

    Do you know what the craziest part is?

    When I first came across the term, and even read a couple articles about it, it didn’t even make a dent!

    I continued with the exact same behavior like nothing happened…

    And it was only after I came face to face with some of the consequences of FAE, that I went back, rediscovered the terminology, and actually understood what it means!

    After a while, I figured out what was missing from the first couple of articles that I had read on FAE:

    They didn’t say anything about the actual impact it can have on your life…

    And they also missed the opportunity cost, seeing as how FAE can both break your life and make it, if you know how to counter it!

    That’s why I teamed up with Michael Simmons, and we wrote an article on FAE that had exactly that as its aim…

    Not only to explain and present the Fundamental Attribution Error, but also to showcase the actual impact it can have in a person’s life.

    If you get a couple minutes, check it out. I respect your opinion – feedback is always appreciated.

    You can check it out here:


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