Fundamental Attribution Error and How it’s Destroying Your Relationships

Fundamental Attribution Error at work between two colleagues sitting on a pile of biases and assumptions

We have been taught that a person’s behaviour determines whether they are good or bad. This can cause us to make assumptions about people without understanding the circumstances. This can lead to trouble in your personal and work environment. It can also have an impact on the relationships you have with others. You may be thinking, “well, why do people make assumptions before knowing all the factors?” And the answer to that question is because of the Fundamental Attribution Error!

What is the Fundamental Attribution Error?

The Fundamental Attribution Error says we judge people’s actions based on our perception of their personality rather than taking an objective look at all of the situational and environmental factors that lead to their actions. So basically, it is our tendency to think, people do good things because they are good people. Or people do bad things because they are bad people. Using this mindset, we forget to look at other factors that could cause someone to behave a certain way.

Two people judging each other's action and falling victim to fundamental attribution error


When Can Fundamental Attribution Error Happen?

This bias can occur anytime we interact with other people. For example, if someone doesn’t hold the door for us when going into a building, we may think they are an inconsiderate and rude person. However, we don’t know if they just didn’t see us, or if they had to use the washroom really badly since they were stuck in traffic all morning.


How Does This Bias Affect Our Relationships?

When people’s thoughts become influenced by this idea, it can cause negative effects. Especially on the relationships in your life. This occurs because people cannot consider situational factors of behaviour. Thus, it makes it harder for people to relate to others. When people cannot connect to others, it is harder for them to show compassion. This can create rifts in relationships and cause you to be a sour person who thinks the worst of people.

The Fundamental Attribution Error likely happens when we see behaviour that violates social norms. As a result of being stuck in this mindset for a long time, we start to generalize people based on race, religion, or even the clothes they are wearing, which is unhealthy and discriminatory.


To have healthy relationships in your life, you must always give the other person the benefit of the doubt and analyze all factors that cause them to act a certain way before passing judgement.

Examples of Fundamental Attribution Error at Work

Now that you have a better idea about attribution error let’s look at some examples of it in the workplace.

Example 1: When Someone is Late to Work

One day one of your employees is late for work. This causes them to walk into the middle of your big presentation and interrupt your speech. In your mind, you are thinking that your colleague is disrespectful or rude for not showing up on time. After this event, you now feel this person is a bad employee, and you no longer want to get along with them.

Yet, what you failed to consider is that their car may have broken down in the morning, or they missed their bus to work. Without knowing the details of why they were late, you jumped to conclusions and made a judgement about them as a person.

Example 2: An Employee Fails to Meet a Deadline

Another example of how this can manifest at work is when an employee fails to meet an important deadline. This can throw off your work schedule and cause project delays. As a result, you may judge the employee for being late and consider them to be unreliable.

Yet, you failed to consider the fact that they could have had technical problems or a family emergency.

Example 3: An Employee Fails to Follow Your Instructions

In another occurrence, day you’re a manager at a warehouse and you have instructed your employees to stack the boxes a certain way on the skid. You notices that one of your employees does not stack the boxes the way you instructed on training day and you assume that she is insubordinate and bad at following procedures.

Yet, in reality you have failed to consider the possibility that she may have missed the training day, just forgot to follow the procedure for that pallet, but followed it for the other pallets before that one.

How to Avoid Committing Fundamental Attribution Error

It can be hard to avoid Fundamental Attribution Error altogether. Yet, we can still work on being more mindful when interacting with other people. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself that will improve your judgement:

  • Why is this person acting this way?
  • What would have happened to make me behave this way?
  • What are some of the situational factors?
  • How does this interaction differ from the ones I’ve had with this person before?
  • What value does this person add to the workplace?
  • How can I approach this situation better?
  • Have I tried communicating with this person to hear their side of the story?

The most important thing in avoiding this bias is communication so make sure you always hear the other person’s side of the story. As a result, you will have a healthier relationship with your fellow coworkers in the workplace. Remember, we are all human, and there are always more factors to consider than one’s behaviour.

Related Readings

Professional Leadership Institute (PLI) is an educational website providing professionals from all types of businesses with practical education in entrepreneurial leadership. To keep evolving your leadership toolkit, additional PLI resources below will be useful:

  1. Do You Have These 4 Vital Interpersonal Skills
  2. The Character Traits that Make a Great Leader

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