Two assumptions people make that cause us all a lot of grief

Our recent article is about how people make assumptions and then jump to conclusions about others that are frequently wrong, and how that can hurt us as leaders. So why do we do it?

 My guess is that way back when, our species got hard-wired to expect the worst because that helped us survive. If we imagined a man-eating animal around the corner and a cliff behind the bushes and took a detour instead, our chances of surviving were higher than our happy-go-lucky friend who assumed nothing and met an untimely end.

Psychologists have identified two ways this brain wiring shows up today - when very few of us encounter life-or-death threats around every corner:

1. Primary Attribution Error 


This is when we tend to assign negative behavior in others to a character flaw and not to the situation they are dealing with. This means that when others behave badly, we figure they lack something in their makeup. On the other hand, if we find ourselves doing the same behavior, we attribute that to the challenges in the situation we're dealing with.

To borrow from Patrick Lencioni, if I see a father grabbing his children in public, I think "What a mean, angry man!" And if I'm grabbing my children in public, I think "I have some misbehaving children!" 

I find this works in reverse about positive results. If someone receives a windfall, we think they're lucky (situation). If we get a windfall, it's obviously because we are a good person and deserve it (character)!

2. Halo Effect

This is when we allow our perception of one characteristic to become a label, and then we unconsciously reinforce that label by filtering out new information that doesn't match our initial conclusion. Some good work makes you a model employee. Some bad work makes you a problem to tolerate or get rid of.

This was oh-so-obvious in elementary school. Somehow I managed to get the "good kid" label, and when I did not-so-good things, people said "Oh, we know Chris. That wasn't really him." Other kids I knew got the "not-so-good kid" label. When they did something well, people said "Oh, we know ____. That wasn't really him/her." And sadly sometimes kids began to apply the same thinking to themselves - with negative results.

A unhelpful combination

Together these two human flaws help us believe that we have the ability to categorize and put people in boxes so we can move forward more quickly. All that messy human stuff can be simplified to a thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgement about people's character. And since we just see what we want to see, the cycle reinforces itself.

You may think I'm downplaying discernment and judgment - I'm not. These are very important human skills. And any strength over-applied or used without thought can become a real weakness.

The key here is to apply discernment and judgment to yourself. Think about the results you are getting - is there a pattern of people who do well with you until they fail? Or do they show up, do badly, and then never recover? 

Perhaps we all would benefit from from putting our stories aside and being a bit more curious about what someone is really made of.

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Chris Hutchinson, CEO


Chris Hutchinson

As CEO of Trebuchet Group, Chris Hutchinson thrives working with clients and his team to improve organizational clarity, teamwork, and leadership impact.

After years of building Legos® and tree houses around the world, Chris earned his Mechanical Engineering degree and followed that with an MBA. His experiences in the military and the business world taught him great leadership can be learned, and everyone is in some way a leader.

Clients and peers describe him as an inspirational catalyst for positive change. He is the author of Ripple - A Field Manual for Leadership That Works.

Chris and his wife live, garden, and bike in Fort Collins, Colorado, and have four children. He has an unrequited love affair with brownies.