A couple of weeks ago, I worked with a leadership team on a new thematic goal. After successfully coming up with a new short-term strategic goal, the president asked to talk with me. What happened next surprised me.

The president said he wanted to fire the CTO. "I just can't stand how much he hates me," he said. "I mean, he can't even stand to look at me in meetings. It's ridiculous."

Now, these two had a history of not being entirely simpatico. I definitely would not describe it as a match made in heaven, but I was in the room with them for the previous two days and I did not see what the president clearly felt. What was going on?

Although I should be immune by now to the power of the fundamental attribution error, it never ceases to amaze me how this behavior undermines so many relationships. The fundamental attribution error is the idea that we attribute the bad behavior of others to their character without taking into account their environment, while we attribute our own bad behavior to our environment, not our character. The easiest way to understand it is to think about your morning commute.

You're driving to work and someone cuts you off. First thing you think is likely, "What a jerk!" or something even less charitable. The next morning, on your drive to work, your cell phone rings and you end up cutting off someone as you answer the phone (hands-free, of course). The problem here is simply that you're very busy and there's too much traffic. It never crosses your mind that you're a jerk. Mass transit commuters may relate to this version of the situation. The point is that in both cases, it's the same behavior, but the reason we ascribe to that behavior is entirely different.

Back to my president and CTO. About two weeks after our goals meeting, I got a note from the president. He said the CTO had just given notice. So, I ask: was the CTO not looking at the president because he hates him or was it because he was interviewing and knew that his departure would create another headache?

Here are five ways you can avoid falling into this trap:

  1. Learn about your colleagues--we're less prone to make this mistake with people we know well. We're more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt.
  2. Ask why instead of assuming--it's hard to make the wrong assumption if you've asked for clarification.
  3. Explain the impact of your actions--now that you know about this you can provide more information to others when your actions may be misinterpreted (which is pretty much always).
  4. Put yourself in their shoes--pretty basic but often very helpful if you can do it without prejudice.
  5. Ask yourself what you might be missing--fill in any potential blanks before you make the wrong assumption.