Fundamental attribution error is a common form of implicit bias. It describes the human tendency to assume that a person’s mistakes reflect their abilities rather than their circumstances. This means that instances of poor workplace performance may be isolated incidents, not an indication a person’s skill or character. Of course, continual poor performance could reflect competency. But it’s important to remember that it could be due to other – perhaps hidden – workplace, social or environmental issues.

Implicit Bias Makes It Easy to Assume Performance Suggests Competency…
Take this example. Nathan is new to your team and works from home. In the past few weeks, he has had to miss a number of meetings, both internal and external. While he apologizes each time, you haven’t heard a convincing reason as to why he’s been missing the meetings. When he does attend meetings, he chooses not to be on webcam, and is often distracted when others call on him for his opinion.

In general, the team is starting to doubt his ability to contribute and add value to the team. You sense tension in meetings, and team members are starting to dismiss and neglect Nathan. Some have commented they perceive him as disengaged and ill-equipped to support the team. As a result, you are preparing to report him to HR.

…But It’s Important to Always Consider External Circumstances, Too
While you might automatically attribute Nathan’s poor performance to a lack of intellectual capacity and professionalism, a quick chat with one of his former team members reveals he was a leading contributor who was always at the top of his game.

So, what’s going on here?

If you had an imaginary non-stop ticket to understanding the root cause of Nathan’s lackluster performance, you’d learn that he recently suffered a herniated disc in his lower back and is unable to sit upright in a chair. You’d also learn that he is experiencing a lot of pain that keeps him from focusing during meetings, if not opting out of meetings entirely.

And, if you were to have a hypothetical and confidential one-on-one chat, Nathan would disclose that he was too embarrassed to share his situation with a new team for fear of being seen as weak or even disabled (an internalized bias unto itself).

How to Overcome Fundamental Attribution Error
To overcome this form of bias, where you’ve erroneously attributed performance to ability, it’s important to scrutinize each and every case of poor performance in a thoughtful, non-judgmental way. This can also help you put performance management energy where it truly needs to be placed: building trust and relationships. In order to get to the heart of an issue with anyone, you need to have strong interpersonal trust. Without it, you’ll likely have a case where the individual doesn’t feel comfortable with the vulnerability required to admit to their personal challenges, let alone seek support from their manager or team members. Checking your bias can also lead you to more equitable behavior. In Nathan’s case, you might offer to purchase an ergonomic chair to support his recovery while working from home.

With so many people today working from home in their own unique circumstance, it’s key to get to know people as much as you can so you can adjust your collaboration and management approaches as necessary. Take the time to ask open-ended questions when a team member makes an error or struggles with a task:

  • How can I best support you this week?
  • What is your home office situation like?
  • How has the pandemic impacted you and your family?

These questions can lead you to more objective, inclusive and fair decision-making while mitigating those pesky biases that often degrade our intentions.