There is one thing people like to debate with me in a class, and that’s whether people have bad intentions.
It goes like this: I’ll explain the fundamental attribution error to everyone at some point along the way. It usually doesn’t matter what kind of class I’m teaching or meeting I’m leading — team building, diversity, communication skills, customer service — it will inevitably come up. The fundamental attribution error is the theory that says we tend to attribute the cause of our own actions to circumstances, but the actions of others to their intentions. So if I cut you off on the highway, I did it because I had a blind spot and I was getting squeezed by the truck next to me, but if you cut me off you did it because you are a bad person who wanted to make me mad.
I’ll generally ask folks at this point, do you really think any of your teammates get up in the morning and say to themselves, “I think I’ll go into work today and do as many annoying and self-serving things as I can to upset my teammates.”? The answer to this question seems so obvious to me, but to my surprise, someone usually says yes.
In a team building workshop yesterday, someone told me he had a boss who often said, “It’s my way or the highway and I don’t care if I’m right or wrong, you’re still going to do it my way.” The participant held this up as evidence that yes, people really do have bad intentions sometimes. I suggested to him that the boss’s intentions still were not bad, despite his poor choice of words; he probably felt what he was doing was in everyone’s best interests because he was an experienced manager. And he probably came from a generation where hierarchy and authority meant more than it does now.
But the participant said no, he was young, and he definitely had bad intentions. He just wanted power and he didn’t care about the negative impact on others.
So I tried my next tactic, which is usually to point out that if we can see people as motivated by circumstances rather than intentions, it gives us more power to change the situation. Now we can ask ourselves, what might I be doing or not doing to cause the situation and how can I change it by changing my behavior? I suggested that perhaps the participant had challenged his boss in ways that made him feel threatened, and if he affirmed the boss’s sense of power he might find the boss would chill out a little.
But the participant said no, he hadn’t done anything wrong. Only the boss had done something wrong.
I gave up. It’s easy to give people advice about the fundamental attribution error. It’s a lot harder to follow it, as I well know myself. How many times have I caught myself attributing bad motives to someone else? Too many to count. We need to practice, over and over, the act of giving someone the benefit of the doubt, of allowing them to have good motives and tough circumstances. I put it on my New Year’s resolution list every year.