The Importance of Proper Encoding and Decoding to avoid the Fundamental Attribution Error in the Workplace

A great example of a personal account dealing with this blog topic is when I enrolled in my first semester at Penn State World Campus. This was the fall semester of 2016 and this event actually happened to me right before I started school. I had applied to Penn State World Campus at the end of June. My manager went on maternity leave a week or so before I applied to school. In her mind there was no reason to assume that I would not be a full-time worker by the time she came back in mid-August. This, unfortunately for her was not the case.

I got my acceptance letter very quickly. It was the second week of July, I believe. I immediately let my district manager know that I would only be working part-time once school started. I guess my manager, (actual manager, not district), was never informed of my decision to enroll in school before she came back.

It was now mid-August and school was starting in a week. My manager, Brandi, came back from maternity leave and little did I know but she was upset that I was going to part-time status. She pulled me to the side on her second day back to speak with me. She asked me what was going on. I explained to her that I was going back to school. I explained that this was a big deal for my future and I wanted her to be happy for me. She said that she was happy for me but didn’t understand why I could only work part time since my schooling was online.

Without going into detail I simply told her that school is my priority now and if I work full time then it will have a negative result on my school work. She simply said ok but it was clear that she didn’t understand me or “believe” me. She just didn’t seem satisfied, I could tell from her body language. From our text, we learn that body language is a form of “non-verbal communication” which “refers to all information conveyed by a sender, apart from the words themselves, that plays a role in transmission of meaning.” (Scheider, Gruman, and Coutts. Applied Social Psychlogy: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems, 2012). This affected me afterward because I could tell there was tension at the end of our conversation. It felt like she wasn’t getting my point and I was not getting her point. We just weren’t communicating effectively.

Because of the tension I thought she might want to fire me if I didn’t agree to work full-time. She didn’t understand why I needed to go to part-time and I couldn’t understand why she didn’t see that I needed the extra time to do well in school, to secure my future.

When someone communicates with another person one of them is the sender of information and the other is the receiver of information; the roles may switch multiple times but each party can only be one of the two at a time. The sender is responsible for “encoding” the message; which means that the message is “constructed from the sender’s thoughts, and transformed in to a communicable form.” (Schneider et al., 2012). Once the message is delivered the receiver decodes the message to gain meaning in the sender’s message. If there are breakdowns during either process then miscommunication results. Come to find out, we both weren’t being good encoders or decoders. The whole time I knew I would be taking sixteen credits but she thought that I was just taking one class.

Sixteen credits is a large workload whether you’re online or going to class. She assumed that I was taking one class, maybe two. If we had been better talkers and listeners, one of us would have realized that we are not talking about just one class but a full semester of classes. Not only did I fail to encode my message to her with the information of how many credits I was taking; she did not decode well enough to assume something that should have been obvious (I was talking about more than one class). She also did not properly encode the message with the information that she thought I was only taking one class and my decoding skills failed to recognize that there HAS TO BE a valid reason she did not understand why I needed to go part-time.

I thought she was being irrational and she thought the same about me! Why did we automatically believe the worst about each other? Instead of thinking of external factors to explain each-other’s behaviors (me requesting part-time status and her getting upset about it), we applied the behaviors to the individual personalities’ of the other party (I assumed she was being a selfish boss and she assumed I was being a lazy worker). This is known as the fundamental attribution error; the tendency “to underestimate the influence of external or situational factors and to overestimate the influence of internal or personal factors when we judge the behaviors of other people.” (Schneider, 2012)

I never communicated the details of my situation; she filled in the gaps for herself. Then she never communicated what she thought my situation was. If we had spoken more clearly in our meeting then there never would have been the tension between us. Understanding of my natural “biases in attribution” will help me to avoid situations like this in the future.



Schneider et al., Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems. Sage Publications, Inc. 2012

Kruger, Justin et al.. Egocentrism over e-mail: Can we communicate as well as we think? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 89(6). Dec. 2005. pp. 925-936.


1 comment

  1. I too was once working a full-time job and had to notify my boss that I was going part time because I was starting school. At the time I was doing a lot of hands-on work such as running chainsaws, sandblasting and painting trailer frames, and basically doing a lot of the grunt work at my job on a mulch farm. When I notified my boss, he was happy for me and encouraged me to not only start but to continue on with my education, as did a lot of my coworkers who happened to be older truck drivers.
    It is unfortunate that your manager did not hold the same sentiments towards you and your education, as my boss did. You may have unknowingly been a very integral part of the company especially in her department. She may have been very concerned on who was going to fill your position and how much time she had to find someone to do so. She may have been concern that she was not going to find somebody that does the quality work you do or did. She had her concerns and you have your concerns about pursuing your education and furthering your agenda. The obvious breakdown which you mentioned was communication and that seem to put some strain on the both of use. It seems as though you were able to pick up on her paralinguistics in which you were able to notice the accent, volume, speech rate, pitch, fluency, of her voice as well as facial expressions, gestures, eye-movement, as well as other nonverbal cues (Nordquist, 2017) to pick up on her dissatisfaction with you and your choice to go to school.
    I was just wondering if you ever spoke to your manager after your initial conversation with her in which she was unhappy in regards to your request to go part-time? I ask because, I believe even if you chose to go to school part-time and work part-time that is your decision, and gaining a higher education may possibly lead you to become a better worker, and possibly a more qualified one that. I don’t believe deciding to work part-time indicates in any way that you are a lazy worker. So, I was basically wondering how you were able to determine what it was she thought about you or how many classes you were taking?

    Nordquist R. (2017). ThoughtCo. Paralinguistics (paralanguage). Retrieved on February 28, 2018 from

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