Whether it is a non-profit organization, a work environment, or school, perceptions can effect organizations on many levels. Within each of the environments listed, at any given time, these organizations will possess a menagerie of people, with differing personalities, attitudes, and capabilities. But more often than not, it is the perception that a person has about his co-workers, as well as the way the person is perceived that can cause problems within the workplace. The major problem with perception is that everyone perceives things differently, and often they each believe their perception is correct. Because people tend to believe what they see, often they will fall into the trap of the fundamental attribution error.
The fundamental attribution error states that we often judge other people’s actions as a result of some faulty personal characteristic they possess, while failing to recognize the variety of situational factors that could be causing their behavior (Schneider, et al, 2012). This error in judgment can be very detrimental within an organization when we rely on our perceptions of others to cloud our objectivity. We have all been guilty of the fundamental attribution error at some point in our lives, and we typically do not think of how the target of our false perceptions are left feeling once they have been wrongly judged based on a particular behavior that does not actually reflect their true character.
During my senior year in college (the first time) I also worked as a General Manager at a Taco Bell. While the job was not glamorous by any stretch of the imagination, the schedule was flexible and the pay was great for a 21 year old; it worked perfectly for what I needed at the time. I was in my last semester at college and had been diagnosed with a serious medical problem that left me in a great deal of pain almost constantly. I wanted to wait until after graduation to have my surgery so for the next 3 months I suffered through both work and school. I am not one to call in or miss work, or class, so I would show up in massive amounts of mind-searing pain. There were times at work, that as soon as the rush was over, I would be found doubled over in the corner trying to make it through my shift. This went on for weeks on end. My supervisor was aware of my problem, but my employees were not and they were not very understanding. Speculation began to surface and the perceptions of my employees were causing them to judge my situation without knowing the true reason for my behavior. They thought I had become complacent, they thought that since I was about to graduate from college I was going to quit and therefore didn’t care any longer, they thought I was faking the pain so that I wouldn’t have to exert as much effort; you name it and they blamed me for it. The problem, however, was that all of them were incorrect. I still took pride in my work, I still cared about my staff, I felt extremely guilty for being less productive that I had previously been; I felt as though it would be better for me to come to work and be semi-productive than it would be for me to miss work and leave them in even more of a bind.
Most of my employees were guilty of the fundamental attribution error. They were blaming me for conditions that were beyond my control. They were judging my behavior as if were some character flaw I had just developed, and it was all based on their perception of my behavior; and each of their perceptions differed. For new employees, this can be particularly problematic. Their first perceptions of me were centered on those moments that I was in pain and otherwise, less productive. Perceptions like these are hard to overcome (Aronson, et al, 2013). New employees are not aware of how an authority figure acted prior to their employment with the company, therefore they have nothing to compare it to. It then becomes easy to judge their superior as being lazy.
Good people are subject to many psychological tendencies and organizational pressures within the workplace that affect their decision making; the desire to please co-workers and/or supervisors, the desire to be part of a team, or the self-serving bias just to name a few (Aronson, 2013). We can avoid errors in judgment such as the fundamental attribution error if we learn that what we perceive is not necessarily reality. By widening our realm of focus, especially in regards to co-workers, we can avoid this destructive blame game. Before judging a co-workers actions, it is important to try and put ourselves in their shoes, ask explicitly for an explanation of their behaviors, look at the breadth of their work experience and judge them based on their reputation, or be open to the fact that our perceptions are not reality. Often times if we consider the entire context of a person’s work experience, we will notice that there is often a reason for someone’s unfavorable actions, and many times it is not a character flaw.
Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., & Akert, R. M. (2013). Social Psychology (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (Eds.). (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Picture borrowed from: http://blog.lib.umn.edu/meyer769/psy_1001/2012/04/to-judge-or not-to-judge.html