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Barry Bonds, Paris Hilton, and Your Wondering Employees

Last week, baseball slugger Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron's record for career homeruns. Skeptics everywhere immediately attributed Bonds' success to rumors of steroid use. Whether Bonds actually takes performance-enhancement drugs or not, his critics' outcry that there be an asterisk next to his name in the record books is a good example of fundamental attribution error. Consider the following.

We humans have an innate need to understand why things happen. In forming our explanations, we attribute credit or blame to internal or external factors. When bad things happen to us, our natural tendency is to point the finger at some external cause (for example, after hitting a bad shot during a round of golf, I'm likely to blame my lousy swing on being disturbed by another player sneezing four fairways away). On the other hand, when positive things happen to us, our inclination is to ascribe our good fortune to internal factors, such as our intelligence or hard work.

Conversely, when explaining why things happen to other people, we have the opposite attribution tendencies. Our propensity is to attribute the success of others to external factors. Hence, our acceptance that Bonds could never have broken Aaron's record without using steroids. But when bad things happen to others, we're quick to blame their character traits (is there anyone who doesn't think that Paris Hilton's spoiled rich-girl personality is what landed her in jail?). Experts call this contrast fundamental attribution error.

Now, apply this concept to the behavior of your employees. Workers hold external factors accountable for their own misfortunes (I'm late because my alarm clock didn’t go off) and the good luck of others (She only got her promotion because they needed to fill a quota). But they blame internal factors for the misbehavior of their coworkers (He failed at that project because he's an idiot) while crediting internal factors for their own success (I earned the promotion by working harder than everyone else did).

Like all humans, your employees are wonderers. Clearly, when left to develop their own explanations, their attribution biases will give rise to comfortable, if not accurate, answers. It's important that you provide the answers they seek.

What are your employees wondering?

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That is a very eye-opening post. I've always found that employees need to be talked to as much as possible to explain the goings on at work. I also know that conversations happen between co-workers that supervisors will never be a part of and those conversations often lead to wondering aloud about those things that aren't clear.

The fundamental attribution errors are so easy and, as you say, fundamental, that only constant effort can overcome them in the workplace.

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