The Other Side of Fundamental Attribution Errors

I previously wrote about the problems of hiring people of high character and the danger of making the fundamental attribution error. In that article, I focused on how people of high character in one area are perceived as being of high character in all areas and thus received the benefit of a “Halo Effect.”

Today I want to focus on a different aspect of the fundamental attribution error that I see with shocking regularity in the teams and businesses I have consulted with. It’s called the “Devil Effect,” and as you probably gathered it is the reverse of the Halo Effect.

In these instances, if a person or player is perceived as deficient in one area it is taken as proof that they are deficient in all areas. I see it all the time with freshmen college athletes and rookie professional athletes. If they do not meet expectations upon arrival, they go into the coach’s doghouse and once in it is extremely difficult to get out.

In the case of college athletes, I have seen players languish in the program for two or three years making progress, but are not given credit for their growth until their junior or senior year. In the pro’s you are more likely to be shipped off or cut before you have a chance to show your true worth. Sometimes you get labeled after just one offense for something as simple as being late or dogging it in a drill or practice.

In the business world, I have seen similar instances, as well as people put in a position other than what they were originally hired to do who failed to live up to unrealistic expectations. In businesses, it is more common to be pushed aside and worked around once they have concluded you are not what they thought you were, making it even harder to prove your value.

Another example is a professional athlete I was called in to work with who had a problem handling his finances. In this case, the player was making plenty of money but spending it even faster than he was making it. His team figured this was evidence that he was impulsive and lacked the discipline necessary to be an accomplished pro athlete, and he was cut before I met with him.

What I found in him was a kid that simply lacked knowledge about finances and the value of saving. He had an incredible work ethic and impressive self-discipline when it came to his career. I argue that he never would have made it to the league in the first place if he lacked discipline. So what the team saw as immature impulsiveness, I saw as a simple lack of understanding and prioritizing.

I found that once he understood the costs of his impulsiveness in regards to money, he was able to build a nice nest egg that worked for him, and went on to have a successful career with another team. I’m pretty sure the team that cut him soon regretted that decision once they saw what he became. I have seen the Devil Effect ruin many players that could have otherwise had successful or even exceptional careers.

Having documented all of the above, the bottom line is, it’s up to the individual to avoid giving their boss or coach reasons to make an attribution error. You have to take advantage of all the things within your control, because when you don’t, you open yourself up to the possibility of others making attribution errors about you.

One final note for coaches, managers, etc. If you have an employee who is performing well but has some behaviors that bother you, it’s best to separate the two and work on those behaviors you do not like, rather than painting the employee with a broad brush and throwing the baby out with the bath water, as they say.


You can follow Sam on Twitter @SuperTaoInc


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