Recently, I shared some thoughts on Hanlon’s Razor and its relationship to self-awareness and mindfulness. Now, I’d like to do the same with the Fundamental Attribution Error, another tool that supports our emotional intelligence growth.
The Fundamental Attribution Error (also known as the “attribution effect”) addresses our tendency to attribute the behavior of others to their character, and attribute our own behavior to environmental factors. Or, the Tim Smith version - when others behave poorly, it's due to their flawed character; when we behave poorly, it's because of the situation. That second part makes this tool a powerhouse in developing our self-awareness and emotional intelligence.
Let’s look at an example using my friend Jai again. Over coffee, he tells me about an occurrence at work where he lost his temper and barked at a peer. I smile, and listen, and think to myself, “Oh Jai, you’re such a hot-head, you really need to work on your EQ and relax.” I don’t have to say it aloud, I’m attributing his behavior to his character, to having a short-temper and poor EQ.
A few days later, I find myself frustrated and act out similarly; I bark at someone too. But it's different when I do it. In my situation, its due to how immature my co-worker acted. Plus, I hadn’t had enough coffee that morning. In my review of the occurence, I give myself a ‘hall’ pass because of the situational factors of having an immature coworker and insufficient caffeine.
So what? An excellent question! What if we take our knowledge of the Fundamental Attribution Error and stick it in our back pocket, and we keep it there until we have the opportunity to use it. It won’t take long, I promise. We consistently assess and evaluate and attribute the actions of others. Knowing about the attribution effect helps create a little pause, that mindful moment. In that pause you can consider what spin you may be putting on the behavior of others, and if you’re holding yourself to similar standards.
When I work with a team of leaders to improve how they interact, we often talk about the Fundamental Attribution Error. It's a powerful tool to help raise awareness about our perspectives, those colorful lenses through which we see ourselves and others. A team or person who genuinely integrates this into their interactions can make huge strides in developing their self-awareness and emotional intelligence, which helps them work more efficiently and more effectively.
What do you think? How might you use this, or how do you use this?
Recently I learned of the principle of Hanlon’s Razor, the sum of which is simple - “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Or my spin - don’t attribute to malice what is adequately explained by something else.
“Nature abhors a vacuum”, taught Aristotle. As such, we humans are prone to fill up space. For the purposes of this article, I am referring to the “space” around neutral pieces of information. As in nature, a vacuum will suck in nearby matter to fill its void; we too, are quick to fill up the space around facts with our own interpretation, our own stories.
For example let’s suppose that my friend Jai and I plan to meet up for coffee. I show up, order a drink and sit there alone, waiting. And waiting. He’s late and that is a fact. The space around the fact is “why”, why is he late. He’s late because he forgot; he’s late because he blew me off for some better, last minute offer; he double booked because he doesn’t respect my time; he’s late because he doesn’t really value our friendship.
Hanlon’s Razor asks us to consider causes other than malice. What if Jai had a flat tire? Or a sick kid? Or got caught in traffic? Those are all also possible causes for his tardiness. Hanlon’s Razor is a tool to help us create a bit of a pause. To get us to reflect for just a minute before we fully buy into our own story.
Now admittedly, my story could be right. Jai may not value our friendship or respect me. But what do I have to lose by taking just a little pause and considering other possibilities?
When I work with coaching clients on improving self-awareness, one area where we often focus is examining perspective by taking a pause. We focus on not only creating the pause, or in current terms, that mindful moment, but we go deeper and examine the patterns of spin we place on the stories we tell ourselves. Then we move into shifting unproductive patterns from negative toward neutral, toward openness, allowing us to be healthier, happier, and more productive.
As we move into the holiday season, and its accompanying stress, having tools, like Hanlon’s Razor, can be tremendously helpful. We can learn to create that pause, that mindful moment. We have the ability to question our own spin on the facts. We can catch ourselves before we react to one of the typical stories we tell ourselves; we can move into a space that allows more freedom of thought; we can choose to respond instead of react.