During a recent team building session I gave my standard spiel about the fundamental attribution error, and how we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt because no one really gets up in the morning and says, “I think I’ll go to work and be a jerk to all my teammates.”  And someone challenged me on it.

I guess I’ve heard people challenge the notion before, but not so vehemently.  It went kind of like this:

Participant: “Some people really do have bad intentions.  What about the Tucson shooter?”

Me: “OK, you’re right.  People who shoot people deliberately have bad intentions.  But we’re talking about your teammates here.  Do you really think they purposely do things to aggravate you?”

Participant: “Yes.  Absolutely.”

Me: “And why do you think that?  What’s your evidence?”

Participant: “I just know.  I’ve worked with them for a long time.  They just want to provoke me.”

So yes, he was making assumptions without checking them out, and we all know where that leads.  But I think he was voicing something that many people really believe, even those of us who consider ourselves “enlightened.”  Maybe I even believe it myself.  The fundamental attribution error (a theory which says we interpret our own actions as caused by external circumstances, but we interpret the actions of others as motivated by their intentions) is an incredibly powerful thing.  When I think back to all the troubled professional relationships I’ve had in my career, I know that deep down I truly believed there was more intent to a colleague’s hurtful words and behaviors than there probably actually was.  I just also knew that it wasn’t cool to say so.

Maybe that’s what it comes down to.  If you can’t believe in good intentions, at least fake it.  What’s the alternative?  A roadblock in the relationship that you’ll never move past.

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