A Bad Employee Or A Bad Week?

What Is The Fundamental Attribution Error?
Summary: We make the fundamental attribution error when we assume that someone's behavior is due to their nature rather than their circumstances. For instance, learners who refuse to learn could be bad employees...or something else may be driving their bad behavior.

What's Going On When A Learner Refuses To Learn?

On a humid summer evening, George Williams was clocked at 78 mph in a 35 mph zone. He ran four red lights as the police followed him. He finally stopped, leaped out of his car, and ran into a building.

What do you think of George so far?

A few steps into the building, he collapsed. Nurses swarmed him, applying compresses to the wounds they could see. After four hours of surgery and three months of physical therapy, George made a full recovery.

Now what do you think of George?

What Is The Fundamental Attribution Error?

The fundamental attribution error (FAE) is when you assume that someone's behavior is due to their nature rather than their circumstances. We all fall prey to it. The numbskull who cuts you off in traffic is clearly a terrible person.

Of course, when you've cut someone off in traffic, it's been for a good reason. You were about to be late for a meeting, or someone was hurt, or one of your kids had a restroom emergency-type situation going on. You can excuse your own behavior, but there are no excuses for others. If someone’s acting like a jerk, they must be a jerk.


Full disclosure: I made this error for years. I run research and analytics for an online eLearning platform (Amplifire). In many other systems, you can just put a stapler on the spacebar, go get a coffee, and your training is done when you come back. But in ours, you have to actually master the material. We’ve developed sophisticated behavior analysis algorithms that try to identify when someone attempts to rush through Amplifire without learning. For the longest time, I have been referring to people who do this—who interact with the system in a disengaged or disingenuous manner—as “goofballs.”

An example of goofballery: Responding “I don't know yet” in less time than it could possibly take to read a question, over and over and over again. (We even have messaging that pops up and makes it clear that their strategy won’t work. One of the messages concludes by telling them “Look, you might as well just learn.”)

A Case Study: Acme

But what I need to keep in mind is that someone who engages in goofballery isn't necessarily a goofball. I learned this lesson quite acutely from one of our clients. Let’s call them Acme. They were using Amplifire in a several-week-long onboarding program for new call center agents.

Even before we had algorithmic behavior categorization, we had some idea of what a goofball looked like in our standard reports. A couple of Acme learners fit the bill perfectly. They rushed through questions, but took longer to learn than average, and struggled mightily to grasp even basic concepts…it was clear that something other than normal, engaged learning behavior was going on.

I’ve been a big fan of naming reports after the question they answer. Sometimes a report user wants a Learner Progress report, sure. But sometimes they just want to know who isn’t done. So we ought to give them a “Who Isn’t Done?” report.

The goofballs at Acme made me want to make a “Who Should I Reprimand?” or “Who’s Screwing Around?” report. Maybe even a “Who Should I Fire?” report. It’s exactly the kind of insight that call center clients are looking for. The success metrics almost calculate themselves: cost savings from reducing training class size, plus improved call performance once the trainees become agents (since you’ve filtered out the ones who appeared not to care about the company or how to do well at it).

Cooler heads prevailed, and we instead went to Acme with a couple names and a curious tone. We asked what they thought might be going on and let them follow up with the trainees. They came back to us with awe and thanks…but not for the reasons the FAE had led me to expect. Instead, one trainee was living in his car in the training center parking lot. You can imagine that that kind of stress would make you disengage from parts of your job you couldn’t tell were important. The other trainee’s father had just died. He was in no shape for a training program that week…but was able to pull it together the following week.

Who Needs Your Help?

So my new name for the goofball report is “Who needs your help?” These trainees needed the opposite of getting fired; they needed support. Our data identified that, but I fell victim to the fundamental attribution error. They weren’t bad employees. They were employees going through a bad time.

My team and I are trying to avoid the FAE in our report labels and data interpretations. I’m also adopting this in my personal life. When someone cuts me off in traffic, I wish them good luck.

Well, I try to, anyway. I’m working on it.

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