Difficult Colleagues 3 – Fundamental Attribution Errors

This week’s Possibility might not be familiar, but rest assured, we’ve all fallen prey to the concepts.


Possibility 3 – Fundamental Attribution Error, Part 1


Over the years, psychologists have shown us a number of Fundamental Attribution Errors. These are errors we make because of different ways we are prone to analyze situations. We might have called coworkers Difficult Colleagues when other things were at play.

Fundamental Attribution Error Pt. 1: We attribute other’s negative behaviors to their character, while we attribute our own negative behaviors to our environment or situations we’re in.

Case in Point: My husband Jim LOVES his garage – it’s the place he keeps his most prized possessions– his tools. His peace-of-mind was violated as a young adult when his home was broken into. He wants to make sure that it never happens again, especially with his tools. Locking down the garage has become a comfort ritual for him. But what happens if I come home, park my car in the garage and forget to shut the garage door? I am blamed as being careless with his tools, cars or anything else he has stored there. On the other hand, what happens if he comes home, parks his car in the garage and forgets to shut the garage door? If I call his attention to it the next day, he shrugs it off saying, “Oh, I must have forgotten.”


How this could play out with our Colleagues: Say a coworker cannot match your own pace. You feel they are lazy and disengaged. They get their work done, but they’re always dragging their feet on the team. It always puts the team’s projects at risk, especially when others need to bank off their work. You feel they don’t care about the team OR the projects. You label them a Slacker (#difficultcolleague) and dang it, you’re getting pretty fed up with their lack of pace: it’s a character flaw.

On my end: I’ve had a serious stretch of “non-pace” and my coworkers wonder about my inability to keep our project on-track, especially if I start our project and they must bank off my tasks. I might not even know I’m causing problems, but I can’t think straight at work because I have multiple home problems. I might be a #sandwiched employee: caring for my elderly parents (one of whom is dying) and my kids (one of whom is getting bullied at school). If I notice I’m not myself at work, I explain away my actions because I’m distracted with too much on my mind: it’s situational.

How many times have we failed to ask our colleagues if we notice problems– are they OK? How can we help? How can we give them more breathing room? Are they not working in their area of strength? Could you, together, brainstorm better workflows? Ask.

Before we jump to conclusions, we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to develop three different scenarios for the situation. By all means, think about the alleged character flaw, but think of other possibilities too. Then, think deeper. Could the one that harms our view of them be incorrect? Probably.