Two Potholes on the Road to Emotional Intelligence for Managers

© Steve Whiteford 2022

Listening to Daniel Pink’s The Power of Regret, I was happy to be reminded of Fundamental Attribution Error in his discussion of Foundational Regret.

Foundational Regret is when we grieve not making responsible personal choices that might have better shaped our lives. We lacked foresight. It includes impactful decisions like spending instead of saving, philandering versus settling down and choosing a leisurely life in youth versus studying or working hard. It puts the blame squarely on our discernment, and may not realistically credit it enough to circumstances that may have set us up for the “error.” When we align with the belief in nature over nurture, doing so decreases our ability to make amends. We commit to a foundational fault and the weight of shame defines us. We can only lament. We’ve committed a self-foundational attribution error.

Although we are statistically more likely to avoid Foundation Regret by blaming circumstances when evaluating personal failures, we’re more apt to accuse others of irrepressible character flaws when they fail.

When we make a Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) about someone, we pigeonhole them. It’s a short-cut, mental habit that Daniel Kahneman calls “fast thinking.” It’s a convenient thing to do. It both saves us time and protects us from the imperfections we tag in the person. It also saves us from developing emotional self-awareness. We don’t examine our feelings or thoughts. We assume superiority by blaming them for challenging our values or disappointing our expectations, instead of considering their past or present circumstances and giving them a break. We sacrifice the people we do it to for our own gain. Simply put, it’s a negative character judgment that separates us. Thinking of others requires empathy. Self-concern, and measuring to goals are proven to dampen empathy.

Confirmation Bias (CB) easily perpetuates Fundamental Attribution Error. This pervasive cognitive bias creates a constant vigilance for things that support our preconceptions. Once we attribute, we confirm. Endlessly.

I’m reminded of a manager I worked with. When I started the job the manager took me aside and gave me very clear descriptions of the character flaws of each of the managers that reported to him and how they would make working with them challenging. These were the professionals I’d been hired to train and coach.

You might think such disclosure might be helpful, but it was a covert setup. He expressed the attitude of “fix them for me.” The manager was caught in his cycle of attribution and confirmation and thought it would save time to pass it on to me to make them change.

I work with a commitment to openness, curiosity, and collaboration when working with assessment reports, personal observations, and complaints. Assessment results, along with leadership or peer conclusions, assumptions, and attributions must be questioned and explored. This approach helps me see and work with an individual’s mindset and circumstances in situations like this. It creates connection and leverage and establishes respect.

Over time I concluded that this cognitive bias coupling (FEA & CB) was common in the management style of the organization and a leading cause of its toxic culture. I sadly witnessed many people struggle with the syndrome, recognize it was a losing battle, and leave. I did too.

Without a conscious discipline like the skills of Emotional Intelligence, once a fundamental attribution is projected – “you can’t un-see it.” And when shared confirmation kicks in, coaching and training solutions are undercut and people are driven out of an organization because they can’t shake the label.

Gossip in an organization can be a healthy form of interpersonal connection, organizational learning, and stress reduction if it’s driven by curiosity and goodwill. It can have the purpose of investigating perceptions and rumors, not spreading them. Gossip is often banned in organizations, and employees are told to “go direct” with any interpersonal concern. But sometimes it is appropriately softening, time-saving, or face-saving to check in with a team member for perspective or advice. However, when it is an act of confirmation bias between people, it works to spread and instill fundamental attribution errors.

Remember that we also self-FBE when we attribute a Foundational Regret to personal responsibility, stupidity, or a character flaw. And we do something very similar when we identify with habitual behaviors or traits and confirm that they are unchangeable – “I just have a short fuse.” I call this Foundational Identity Error, but it’s likely an aspect of Fundamental Attribution Error.

You may be making a Fundamental Attribution Error if:

·        you’re dismissing someone

·        you’re judging someone as unworthy

·        If the words “always” or “never” come to mind

·        you are blaming

·        you’re avoiding responsibility

·        you are name-calling or ridiculing

·        you’re dissatisfied (notice the driving emotion)

·        you’re focused on yourself or your reputation

·        you are seeking evidence or sighting proof of your projected attribution

·        you are saying “this is just who I am”

The practices of Emotional Intelligence can remedy this syndrome. When you notice you’re doing any of the above, look for the feeling that’s driving it. There are many possibilities: fear, frustration, disappointment, anger, stress, anxiety, irritation, alienation, exhaustion, and more. If you identify what’s fueling your judgment it’s easier to engage your prefrontal cortex, question the error of your thoughts, and decide to become curious and engage some empathy.

If we’re convinced that someone has a “fundamental flaw,” rather than reject them, we might wonder how to stay open to them and assist them. Releasing someone from an incontrovertible judgment can produce miracles. Use Oprah’s question, “What happened to you?” as an internal cue to consider the offender’s circumstances and humanity.

Addressing cognitive bias, and especially the dynamic duo of FBE and CB when teaching emotional intelligence as a foundation for management communication, team, and interpersonal conflict resolution is highly productive.

Cognitive Bias lists range from a basic six to 200. Daniel Kahneman calls them “system errors” Although meant to assist us, their speed, habitual nature, and lack of logical examination contribute to significant human challenges including racism, authoritarianism, and war.

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