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Avoid Two Decision-Making Traps

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

All of us have had at least one of these experiences, or something similar:

  • A colleague routinely arrives back from lunch late (which is against company policy).

  • Your manager only responds to about 20% of your emails.

  • A co-worker regularly submits a report late, despite it due at the same time every week.

These are scenarios I present to groups of managers in one of my leadership classes. I ask them why these behaviors occur. Why does your colleague continue to come back from lunch late? Why doesn’t your boss reply to email? Or why can’t your co-worker just complete the report without someone having to ask for it?

I ask, “What is the first explanation that comes to mind?”

Most often, I hear something like this: The colleague doesn’t come back from lunch because they hate their job. The boss doesn’t respond to email because they are bad at managing their workload. The co-worker can’t submit the report because they don’t value other people’s time.

Harsh, right? But not uncommon.

When trying to understand the behavior of others, we will often jump to conclusions that describe a personality or behavior (often negatively). Rarely, do we begin with justifying behavior with legitimate circumstances or context. These quick assumptions are a trap that can cripple effective decision-making. It’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error.

Here’s another trap, when searching for information about something important to us, we will gravitate to what supports our beliefs resulting in seeing and pursing one side of the proverbial story. We may even avoid or disregard information that contradicts our beliefs, in order to further justify our own. Doing this gives us an incomplete picture of the situation and if the situation requires us to make a decision, we may not make the best one. This is called Confirmation Bias.

The Fundamental Attribution Error and Confirmation Bias are two traps we all fall into and before now, may not have realized it. These traps compromise us as decision-makers, team members, leaders, and …well, just people.

Trap #1 - Fundamental Attribution Error

The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is when we attribute personality flaws, lack of motivation, or other behavior traits as the primary reasons for someone’s actions rather than legitimate context or circumstances. A simple and nearly universal example is traffic.

When teaching this concept in leadership classes, I would often ask participants if they had ever mistakenly cut someone off in traffic. 100% of the class would raise their hand. They all confirmed that they have made that mistake. I ask them how they feel about it. Nearly everyone says they feel a little bad or remorseful.

Then, I would ask, what do you do when someone cuts you off in traffic?

There is an immediate chuckle with responses ranging from sighing loudly to using various hand gestures and profanity. I ask why they react this way to someone cutting them off in traffic and I hear “Because they’re a jerk!” or “They act like their time is more important.” Or “They’re terrible drivers.”

These responses are given right after every single person in the room had admitted to making their own mistake behind the wheel. Despite admitting those mistakes, the participants did not afford the same possibility to others. Such as thinking the driver who cut them off “…they may not have seen my blinker on...” Other legitimate circumstances could be at play too like rushing to an emergency or being late for work. I'm not condoning cutting people off in traffic. I am advocating for giving others the same benefit of the doubt you give yourself.

This speaks to how rapidly we will make judgements about others and how our first thoughts about other people’s behavior may not be entirely correct.

This Fundamental Attribution Error will wreak havoc on decision-making, but also will on relationships and other interpersonal interaction. Think of the number of times someone did something and our reaction was “What a …!”

Most of the population does not wake up and try to ruin other people’s days or intentionally behave in ways that are intended to create stress, frustration, or anger.

That is why the remedy for this quick judgement is quite simple. Ask yourself: What else could be true?

The beauty of this question is that it acknowledges the initial explanation of behavior. Your boss only responds to 20% of your emails because, indeed, they can’t manage their workload. Or, the driver who cut you off in traffic might actually be a jerk. Yes. Those explanations could be true.

But, what else could be? This simple question opens the possibility of other perspectives. When we explore other perspectives, we gather more insight that leads to better information, better reactions, and ultimately, better decisions.

Trap #2 - Confirmation Bias

"Confirmation bias refers to our tendency, when receiving new information, to process it in a way that it fits our pre-existing narrative about a situation or problem." (Harvard Business Review) We do it quickly and often without realizing it. None of us are immune to it but if we are aware of the concept, we are more likely to combat it.

Here is a true story to illustrate this concept in the workplace. The names and some details of the story have been changed.

Stephanie is the Vice-President of a large division and is amazed with one of her Directors, David. David has supported all of Stephanie’s major initiatives, he works late, is available at all hours, and gets the results she wants. David has impressed the other executives with his work and now Stephanie would like to reward him with a raise.

Stephanie goes to her HR department to discuss it. HR advises her to wait on the raise. She is presented with data that shows David’s department has the highest rate of employee turn-over in the division and his employee satisfaction scores are 20 points lower than the company average. In addition, the HR representative shared that Employee Relations had received recent complaints of unfair treatment in David’s department.

Stephanie is shocked. David is her best leader on the team. She has trouble believing this is the case. HR advises her to gather more information on David’s leadership performance before deciding on his raise.

David has five direct reports who are managers. Stephanie picks up the phone and calls one. She asks what this manager thinks of David’s leadership. The manager says that David is great and indicates there are no complaints.

Stephanie calls another and hears the same feedback. “David is great.” This time, Stephanie asks if there is anyone else she should talk to and this manager refers her to a third. Stephanie makes the call and hears the same feedback about David.

Three out of five of his managers all described him as a great boss. Yet, Stephanie didn't inquire about anything specific. Stephanie now believes the HR data is surely off. Her opinions of David are confirmed, and she proceeds with the raise.

The problem with Stephanie's approach is that she didn't inquire about information related to the turnover rates or engagement scores. By broadly asking what direct reports thought of David's leadership, she got equally as broad answers. Yet, HR gave her specific data to make her question the effectiveness of David's leadership.

Stephanie fell into the Confirmation Bias trap. We all do it. We feel strongly about something, so we move in hot pursuit of information to substantiate it, sometimes without even knowing it. It feels good to have what we “know” about the world confirmed, and it is much harder for us to actively challenge what we believe or know.

Sometimes, our egos get the best of us and we only look for confirming evidence because the thought of being proven wrong is too uncomfortable, painful, or requires more work than we are willing to put in.

In Stephanie’s case, she should have addressed the turnover rates and engagement scores and asked the managers “What am I missing?”

Again, none of us are immune to Confirmation Bias, but there are ways to combat it:

  • Question yourself. Ask, what am I missing? What is the point of view of the dissenting opinion?

  • Get insight from a trusted colleague. Ask them to poke holes in your position or offer guidance.

Consistently making good decisions is a focus for all leaders and we all do the best we can given the information and skills we have in that moment. We will still sometimes fall into these traps. But we can learn from mistakes, grow, and move forward.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leadership and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm.


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