The Devastating Effects of the Fundamental Attribution Error in an Organization


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: not-to-judge.html


  1. Jamie Lynne Wilson

    This post brings to light a very important problem that warrants addressing. In this case, the fundamental attribution error served only to make you feel worse about your health and performance and did little to serve any positive purpose. In lacking compassion and understanding, your fellow employees served only to generate gossip and negative feelings amongst the group.

    While the group was wrong in passing judgment without much knowledge of the situation, it is also true that one may only use the knowledge they are given in order to make decisions. Unfortunately, it seems to be human nature to attempt to reason another’s behavior and bring it in line with our own. For example, the employees at the Taco Bell that you managed were likely trying to put themselves in your shoes to understand your changing behavior. “If I were graduating soon and knew my time here was limited, I wouldn’t be working as hard either.”

    In future situations, while you may want to respect your own privacy, you may be well served to include your fellow employees in your situation. Even to a minimal extent, the knowledge that a real physical cause may be to blame for your new or worsening behavior may have elicited more sympathy and support from your coworkers and employees. On the other hand, I certainly understand how the situation and the fundamental attribution error on the part of your fellow employees served only to worsen your situation and likely made cohesion amongst the team very difficult. After all, confiding personal details regarding your health is only made more difficult by employees passing judgment and undermining the authority you worked so hard to build.

    Perhaps organizations may take note of situations like the one you described in your post. A simple workshop explaining the importance of searching outside the box for answers may have allowed some of these coworkers to take a different stance on your behavior. Encouraging open communication and dialogue between all employees may have provided for a more honest relationship among everyone which may have made it possible for some of your employees to come to you directly regarding your situation without speculating and starting the rumor mill.

    I am terribly sorry to hear about this experience and am sure it was an incredibly difficult situation to endure. My hope is that organizations may be able to provide for a future within their companies that help to eliminate situations like the one through which you suffered and make managing healthcare issues in the workplace less stressful.

  2. Jennifer Theresa Cass

    At some point in our lives we may have been quick to judge and make faulty assumptions. Some of us may have had the opportunity to realize when we have made these mistakes, but most times we probably don’t even realize. It’s easy to stick with the perceptions you feel are true. Your personal situation was a great example of how easy this can happen. Your employees were basing their perception of you solely on what the witnessed while at work without taking into consideration of other situational factors that could contribute to your behavior.

    These kind of cognitive biases can be very critical in work settings, or even personal relationships. I believe many times people forget to consider all the different factors that could contribute to a person acting a certain way. There was a time that I have received some scary news about my health, and it definitely had an effect on my behavior. Only my husband and one of my friends knew what was going on, to everyone else I was perfectly fine. Fortunately for me it turned out that I had nothing to worry about, but for those few weeks I was so worried that I really kept to myself and at times was distant to the people around me. I noticed one of my friends saw the change in my behavior and took as I didn’t want to be around her. After interactions with her I would see her post on twitter that she apparently “someone” aka me, didn’t want to be her friend. When in all honesty my behavior had nothing to do with how I felt about her, I just had a lot going on and that’s just how I was dealing with it at the time. I didn’t feel the need to explain my situation to her but because of that she based her judgment on the way I was acting she was also guilty of fundamental attrition error.

    In order to reduce fundamental attrition error I think it is important for people to “put themselves in someone else’s shoes” before they make assumptions. We are quick to judge but forget that there can be various reasons behind a persons’ behavior. The less we assume the less likely we are to make errors about others. We wouldn’t want someone just to make assumptions about us, so why should we do it to them? However I do realize that it is definitely easier said than done.

  3. Asher Rodriguez

    One of the biggest issues in a business environment is the inability to see oneself as part of a team. Often times we think of ourselves as an individual working for a company, rather than thinking of ourselves as part of this unit working towards achieving a common goal. Attributions can often stem from this roadblock, like you stated it is essential to stop playing the blame game. However, when it’s left up to the individual it’s easier to just make these snap judgments rather than take the time to stop and think, especially because work environments can be hectic.
    I think it’s imperative that companies offer training in this specific field. Training managers and employees to identify when they engage in this behavior and offering them insight into the real cause of a negative outcome may encourage better team performance. By preventing negative attributions from occurring hopefully a corporation can better ensure productivity and effective group dynamics.

    Borkowski, N. (2009). Organizational behavior, theory, and design in health care. Sudbury, Mass.: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.

  4. The employees of any and all companies work as a team. Katsenback and Smith (1993) define a team as individuals who work towards a common goal or purpose and bring unique skills to the table. Therefore, within an establishment, there are employees tasked for a variety of roles based on their specific talents. Ultimately, these individuals must work together into order to successfully accomplish the daily mission as well as the long-term goals. Often times it is incorrect perceptions and assumptions amongst employees that lead to conflict whether it be amongst employees in a major organization like Taco Bell or a small football team in Waterbury, VT. It is a natural tendency to attribute the behaviors of others to personal flaws and as stated, it is challenging to overcome an opinion once it is made – especially for new employees (Aronson, et al, 2013). This is a prime example of how the fundamental attribution error can lead to conflict and hinder the group from performing efficiently.

    Conflict jeopardizes the relationship roles of a group, which ultimately hinders the productivity and efficiency of a team (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2006). In the example of Taco Bell, the employees were most likely distracted judging and gossiping about the general manager rather than focusing on being efficient and getting their work done. Additionally, conflict brings tension and causes employees to not work together as seamlessly as may be necessary for the job. Therefore, the fundamental attribution error can not only be hurtful to an individual but can also be a serious issue in regards to the success of an organization.


    Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., & Akert, R. M. (2013). Social Psychology (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

    Hughes,R.L., Ginnett, R.C., & Curphy, G.J. (2006). Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

    Katzenbach, J.R. & Smith, D.K. (1993). The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-performance Organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.

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