Fundamental Attribution Error – what is it and why is it important? Despite the stuffy name, this is an extremely important concept for coaches to keep front and center as they work with clients. Dr. William Berquist, author of Developing Human and Organizational Resources explains it this way:
“There are two ways behavior emerges in an individual, Trait and State.
“Trait is what neuroscientists would call the functions of the deep ganglia – habit or neural pathways so frequently used that one reverts to these without using much energy – an automatic pilot of sorts. Trait doesn’t change without ongoing, persistent effort – effective coaching.
“State, on the other hand, is induced by the wealth of input in the environment, what David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership refers to as olfactory, gustatory, kinesthetic, visual, auditory, self digital (self-talk) and is strongly affected by perceptions of fear vs. security, high status vs. low status. State fluctuates with every situation.”
Often when we analyze what is going on with us, we come up with the unusual formula, “I act from State, You act from Trait”. We assume that “You” act from Trait so that you will be predictable and we can feel grounded in our assessment of how you will “show up” in future. Yet in looking inward, we acknowledge that our behavior is in sync with each situation as it arises.
This is a critical error when assessing others – particularly when coaching – Fundamental Attribution Error. We attribute Trait to the behavior of others, to feel safe and State to our own actions.
Often, in business, a client becomes “stuck” when thinking her first reports (or those she reports to) act from Trait, rather than State. With that thinking, attention is focused on seeing only behaviors that support that perspective. A built in sense of impotency arises as she focuses is on the “problem” rather than generating flexibility, possibility, and openness.
Likewise, beginning coaches rely heavily on assessments that see the client in terms of Trait rather than State. A reliance on the Enneagram without sufficient training is Trait oriented. Moving from this place limits the coach’s listening, hence design and leads to rigidity.
Wondering how to avoid this error in your work? Coach your client by helping her look at settings in which certain traits come up. Explore context. Invest time in determining whether the coaching issue is State or Trait related. Discuss State and Trait with your client. Help the client observe both in her life.
Then develop inventories of how others see the client (descriptive assessment) to measure against. Share these as part of the exploration. If the issue the client is working on is management (of a team, division, company) explore whether the client is assessing others according to their State or Trait. Help her understand how to change the State to support the behaviors that will increase trust, communication, and productivity.
And check in with yourself when you notice yourself predicting the behavior of others. Are you making a fundamental attribution error?