A Lesson in Humility (and Fundamental Attribution Error)

In the research world, reliability has to do with the quality of measurement. According to the basic theory of reliability, one cannot calculate it; one can only estimate it. In addition, there are a variety of different types of reliability that each have multiple and unique estimation methods. It’s complicated.

In the human world, the concept of reliability is much simpler: Can others count on you?

Most will agree that reliability is a valuable characteristic. Beyond being professional and competent, it is also a sign of respect. If you say you’re going to do something by a deadline, then do it. Respect the recipient of said promise enough to deliver. Anything short of that screams, “Something else was more important than you.” We’ve all been there.

Consider the following scenario:

You schedule a meeting with a client at 3:00. Your day is crazy, you’re putting out fires left and right, traffic is nuts, and the race is on to be there on time. You consider texting him to push the meeting by 15 minutes, decide against it and weave through traffic like Mario Andretti. You pull into the parking lot at 2:59 tires screeching and sprint through the door searching the crowd for his face. You don’t see him, so you catch your breath and grab a coffee. Fourteen minutes later, he pings you.

What? He’s already a few minutes late and he didn’t even apologize! Who does he think he is? While it so easily could have been you who was late for many “reasons beyond your control,” you’re here, and he isn’t. Now, you’re irritated.

Let’s face it… we’re human. Things happen. We’ve all been on both sides of that scenario. The interesting thing is the variance between our perspective as the disrespector and the disrespectee. Think about the last time you were late for an appointment. The traffic was bad, your prior meeting ran long, you couldn’t find a parking spot, etc. When we fall short, we usually have “reasons.” But when someone else falls short, we instinctually perceive it as a faulty character trait. “He’s rude… he doesn’t respect my time… he can’t manage his time.”

There is an emerging field of research that explores this duality of irrational perceptions we have of the world. Behavioral scientists refer to it as fundamental attribution error. Also known as correspondence bias, it’s the tendency to place greater emphasis on situational factors when considering own behavior while placing greater emphasis on character or intention when considering others’ behavior.

Here is another scenario:

You receive a message on LinkedIn from a lady complimenting a recent post you’ve written and commenting on something she’s read in your profile. After a few exchanges, you schedule a meeting to chat on the phone and add it to your calendar. A week later, you get a new phone, and you have syncing issues with your calendar. Not all of your appointments transfer to the new phone. Long story short, you miss the call completely. You don’t realize it until you see two missed calls and listen to two gracious voicemail messages from your new connection. She isn’t irritated or offended. She asked to reschedule.

So that happened last week. And I was the disrespector. And we did reschedule for the following Monday. Of course, I apologized…. new phone, syncing issues, blah, blah, blah… We had a lovely conversation, and I’m grateful to be connected with her. She’s smart and passionate and I’m eager to learn from her. But more than that, I have to thank Dianne Dawson for the lesson in humility. Yes, things happen, life gets busy, technology fails, and, sometimes, we simply forget. But how often do we cut others the same kind of slack when they disappoint us?

Remember the fundamental attribution error the next time someone fails to deliver. Do you blame that person’s character or do you consider that maybe there are situational factors to blame? And compare that reaction to a time when you failed to deliver.

I like to think that reliability is one of my greatest strengths. I work hard to do what I say I’m going to do, and I attribute much of my success to that trait. But, this week I learned that success is not always the best teacher. Failure makes us humble. It also makes us human.

If you enjoyed this post, the best way to tell me is with a like, comment, or share.

Dr. Melissa Hughes is the President and Founder of The Andrick Group. Melissa specializes in growing our capacity to learn as well as employee engagement, effective communication strategies, and the unique dynamics of the multi-generational workforce. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies that impact how organizations think, learn, communicate and collaborate.


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