There is this great study we talked about in my undergrad Social Psychology classes that I think about a lot.
The study was on the “Fundamental Attribution Error,” and it documented people’s perceptions of someone they saw who seemed very angry or depressed in a line at a bank.
The basic conclusion was that people often perceive temporary behaviors as concrete and permanent personality traits. Meaning, when people saw others standing in line who seemed angry or depressed in just a two-minute encounter, they were highly likely to believe that that person was an angry person, in general.
But when researchers actually asked the “angry” or “sad” people why they were so upset, they consistently brought up external factors. Things like:
- How their husband had just been laid off from work and they were in a funk.
- How they had just been in a fight with one of their kids before coming into the bank.
- Or, how they had a big, upcoming bill and were worried about being able to afford it.
In basically every case, the people experiencing anger or sadness or fear never attributed it to their personality. What they did was list all of the difficult things they were currently experiencing and how those circumstances were causing such difficult emotions.
Why This Deeply Matters
Most of us have been annoyed by a colleague or boss in the past week. Or a friend. Or a customer service rep. Or that driver who cut us off.
And when it happens, most of us start with thoughts that go something like:
That person is an idiot.
Or that person is a horrible driver.
Or that person always treats other people that way.
Or that our boss always favors that person.
In essence, that person always acts that way, and they will never change.
How This Plays Out
Last night, I was talking with a good friend about an issue she’s having with her new boss. He set up some solid goals and rhythms for the two of them when she began working for him about a month ago. But over the past few weeks, he’s increasingly started to drop more and more balls. She’s working incredibly hard and keeping the commitments he laid out for her. But he’s not keeping his own.
And my friend’s first response? Her boss isn’t that smart. He can’t keep it together, and there’s something wrong with him.
She’s not thinking that there may be issues going on with him at home. That he may be working on some crazy deals lately that happen to be keeping him from following up. She’s not thinking that there may be external circumstances affecting his ability to maintain his commitments.
Now, of course, if this is her first experience of her boss, she might have good reason for concern. Without a track record to know that this isn’t his normal way of operating, she has reason to be weary of his behavior. There’s not much history between them for her to know whether this isn’t typical or whether she should follow Maya’s golden rule, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
But not giving people an initial benefit of the doubt can be destructive. And you can probably see the kind of impact it can have on teams.
If we believe that every negative behavior we experience from someone is core to a person, we won’t want to engage in any sort of discussion about what could be going on or how to shift a behavior that might be unhealthy—for ourselves or others.
It’s been described as, “The tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are.”
So we stay silent and find ways to work around someone, rather than go deeper in and engage.
Leaving no room for change, or growth, or development. Leaving us disconnected.
But there is a different way.
Changing the Tapes
Here’s what’s been helping me and where I’ve been encouraging the GAN team to think about, too:
The Benefit of the Doubt
First, when I see a negative behavior, I automatically try to give the person the benefit of the doubt. Instead of my brain automatically assuming that someone is lazy, stupid, or unethical, I assume that the weird or “bad” behavior is just temporary. This takes time because our brains are actually wired to protect us from threats—real or imagined. When we see someone exhibit bad behavior, our brains instantly see it as something that might hurt us, and we tend to throw up our guard. So, you have to consciously inject more positive thoughts about someone when something negative happens.
Lean Into Motivations
Second, if I have a good relationship with the person, I try to bring up what I know to be their true motivations as quickly as possible and then I actually ask that person some questions. For instance, with my friend (the one with the new boss who’s not living up to his commitments), I encouraged her to sit down with him and ask him what’s going on. Has he taken on too much stuff? Is he just in a busy season? Or something else? This at least gives her some objective facts.
The Bigger Picture
Third, I try to bring up a bigger goal with the person when I discuss this stuff with them. In other words, I try to make it about something other than their behavior—something more objective. In the case of my friend, this could be something like, “Our clients aren’t hearing from us, and the business is suffering. Is there something we might shift to lighten your load and open up some of your time for emailing again?” It moves their conversation away from everything being his fault to instead address the impacts being felt within the business.
Finally, I wait for more data points and watch for any shifts. I always want someone to change overnight, but it’s so rarely the case. So what I’ve come to look for is if or how that person makes incremental changes. Did they move just a bit closer to whatever we discussed? Have they come back for more clarity if they didn’t understand the first time or need more insights? But give it some time. It takes everyone time to learn new patterns.
Then, if their behavior persists and I don’t see any noticeable effort, I know there may be a bigger issue. And that’s when I have to start asking myself bigger questions: Whether boundaries need to be set, if it’s necessary to take more aggressive action, or whether I need to end the relationship altogether.
But when you work with good people (which I assume most of you do), we all have to trust that we’re going to continue growing and developing. We have to trust that who we each are in any one given moment doesn’t speak for who we are as people, all the time.