One of my favorite topics for a team building session is the fundamental attribution error, or FAE for short. The FAE is a concept in social psychology which says we tend to interpret our own behavior in terms of situational factors; I did what I did because it made sense given the circumstances. But when it comes to the behavior of others, especially behavior we don’t like, we tend to interpret it in light of motivational or intentional factors. You did what you did because you’re a jerk, or you have no respect for me, or you’re a control freak, or you’re just not a very responsible person.
When I talk about this there’s inevitably resistance from many in the group. Are you saying that no one ever has bad intentions, they ask? Then they begin to tell stories about various rotten teammates and bosses they’ve had over the years. It’s usually the case that they “just know” why they did something annoying or disrespectful, but of course, they never checked out their stories with the guilty party because that would have been pointless (or too frustrating, or too difficult, etc.).
While it’s certainly true that we make up stories about each others’ bad intentions and fail to check them out all the time, it’s also true that some people do some incomprehensibly bad things that defy our ability to see them as motivated by situational factors. My message is really more about giving teammates the benefit of the doubt than anything else. But a recent blog post by Adam Grant, one of my favorite OD theorists and writers, gave me a flash of insight into this seemingly irreconcilable set of perspectives. Grant examines various studies over the years which have found that ordinary people will do evil things in the right set of circumstances; for example, subjects recruited for a Stanford study on prisons and prison guard behavior quickly descended into cruel and power-hungry behavior. But, Grant says, the studies fail to take into account the kind of people who are inclined to volunteer for such a study. When psychologists Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland compared people who signed up for a psychological study of prison life with the general population, they found higher levels of aggression, narcissism and authoritarianism, and lower levels of empathy. So it isn’t so much about a situation turning good people into bad people, but about certain types of people who seek out certain types of bad situations. Referencing the Adolf Eichmann Nazi trial, Grant sums it up thus: “Bad people are more likely to opt into bad situations. When they band together, all too often, evil is the result.”
This might explain how we can feel so strongly about someone’s bad intentions sometimes, even though we haven’t done our homework. It doesn’t change the need for us to give our teammates and colleagues the benefit of the doubt and have the uncomfortable conversations when they do something we don’t like; but it does explain how the FAE could be accurate and still not account for truly bad behavior.