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Concepts for Coaches #3: Fundamental Attribution Error
Have you ever noticed that when you're being criticized for something, you try to explain it away by pointing to contextual factors that interfered with your performance? For example, if you turn a project in late, you might remark that you didn't have the information that you need on time, or if you miss the game-winning field goal, you comment on the direction and strength of the wind.
Some people call this "making excuses." But the truth is somewhere in the middle. Though we can control some aspects of our performance, most of us are actually more right about the role of the environment in our performance than we acknowledge.
Ironically, most of us are unwilling or unable to acknowledge how the environment might influence someone else's performance.
Psychologists call this the "fundamental attribution error." The idea is pretty simple: when it comes to other people's failures, we tend to believe that the failure is a result of something intrinsic to them as a person. When it comes to our own failures, we tend to ascribe them to something external.
This sets up a rather pernicious dynamics for coaches and leaders. When the athletes or employees fail, we start to internalize beliefs about them as people based on inaccurate judgments we make about the factors that impacted their performance. That's part of why we hear some of the most common, and toxic, leadership or coaching statements we hear. Things like "they're just lazy,” "they're dumb," or "they can't do it" reflect the core feature of this cognitive bias. We underappreciate the impact of the environment on results.
This is just one of many cognitive biases that impact the way that we work and live, but it's the bias that plays out most in our understanding of others. In a relationally driven world like sport, understanding the impact of the fundamental attribution error on our thinking and interaction can give us a leg up in the way we work with others and begin to describe success and failure.
When we're explaining success to our athletes, the key is to ascribe that success to internal characteristics or qualities the athletes possess, developed, or control. These might be qualities like great effort or hard work, a developed skill, a character trait like integrity, or another controllable factor that the athlete can repeat in any performance.
By explaining success in this way, we help our athletes (or employees) feel more personally responsible for the positive outcome and directly point them to the factors that they need to focus on to repeat success. The end result is a (somewhat) repeatable formula for success under similar circumstances. This also happens to be giving them the same benefits we give ourselves when we explain our own successful performance.
Failure is an inevitable part of sport and business, so learning to deal with failure effectively as a leader is critical to sustaining success over the long term. Falling victim to the fundamental attribution error is one quick way that leaders undermine trust in their team. Imagine liking a boss that takes personal credit for all their successes, points to the circumstances for their failures but blames you personally for moments when you underperform. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone interested in that work environment.
If we want to avoid the fundamental attribution error, the first thing to do is look at the failure broadly. This doesn't mean we're looking for excuses - there's a big difference between trying to explain a failure and trying to explain away a failure - we're looking to understand the full scope of what led to the result.
Acknowledge the impact the circumstances may have had on the result. It can be beneficial to identify aspects of the circumstances or environment that the team could influence or impact - that will help it feel less like an excuse, and more like a productive way of exploring what there is to learn. Rather than blaming a loss on the other team being more talented, for example, we might point out that collectively our team's preparation wasn't deep enough for the quality of the opponent we have. Instead of blaming the weather for a missed field goal, we talk about how our team hasn't quite practiced bad weather field goals enough, and that we can get better with a bit more time on the field.
This is a small and subtle difference, but the impact can be massive. Our teams begin to feel like there's more we can do to improve our odds of success, and the athletes themselves feel empowered to take action in fixing some of the issues we've identified collectively. No one individual feels the sole responsibility for an adverse outcome in a team event, and more importantly, no individual is being blamed for the failure and having it explained as a feature of "who they are" rather than "what they did."
This practice will instill trust in your team, and challenge you as a coach or leader to more fully appreciate the dynamics that influence all our success and failure. The reality is, that every performance is a bit of skill, circumstance, and luck - so make sure you give credit where it's due.
How do you typically explain failure or mistakes? Do you blame the person, or something else?
What's one step you can take to better work with your athletes on explaining success and failure?