Don't Blame Their Personality

A mental model to improve your people skills.

As I've shared before, the most successful and sharp consultants I know have invested time learning and understanding how to use mental models. These are concepts or ideas that help you explain things, make better decisions, and live better.

The fundamental attribution error (FAE), which was discovered by social psychologists, is one of those.

The FAE is a tendency for people to attribute another's behavior too much to character and personality, and too little to circumstances. It may be easier to understand it with an example.

Let's say Betty greets John as he enters the office, only to be completely ignored by him - who passes by without even replying. Betty thinks John's behavior is a reflex of his personality. "He's egocentric, selfish, a snob."

What doesn't come to her mind is that what happened can be attributed to a situation or environment, such as being late for a meeting, having just heard distressing news about his family, or simply not hearing Betty's greeting.

Of course, when it's the opposite Betty quickly finds situational causes to justify the behavior. People rarely think they have a character flaw.

But why does it matter to you? How does your awareness of the FAE improve your consulting practice? In my opinion, it is all about relationships and trust-building.

Sometimes we ignore the situation in front of us. It might happen with a client, a colleague, a contractor. When we're low on cognitive resources (tired, distracted, stressed), we are more likely to skip a situational analysis and jump straight up to a value judgment.

This happens a lot when we believe a certain behavior is highly indicative of a specific personality trait. If you think aggressive people are more likely to scream on a call, you will immediately judge someone as aggressive when they raise their voices. But have you looked at the context?  

I think the best antidotes to the FAE is some good old empathy. It’s easy to judge and blame other people’s personalities, especially when we view a behavior negatively. But it’s hard to keep feeling that way once you imagine how you’d feel in their position.

If we changed roles, you would probably want the other person to give you the benefit of the doubt, and understand that your mistakes aren’t necessarily a sign of who you are as a person.

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jamie@example.com
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