When we witness poor behaviours at work, we can make assumptions that it is the individual’s personality or disposition that caused the behaviour rather than take into consideration the situational factors.

The situational factors include:

  • The environment around us
  • The people involved.
  • The moment/event.
  • The context.

If we don’t consider the situational factors, we risk what social psychologists call ‘fundamental attribution error’. 


A fundamental attribution error occurs when we decide that the
individual’s personality attributes are responsible for the behaviour,
rather than the situational factors.


As we consider individual behavioural responses in the workplace, we need to take a broader view and look at:

  • Workplace culture
  • Psychosocial hazards that may be present that can heavily influence behaviour
    (such as high work demands and time pressures, poor leadership support, conflict), and
  • Other current events that provide additional context.

Explore the case study below deeper understanding of this topic.


Case Study

Pedrov is a busy leader who’s just been landed an additional organisational project and chooses to enlist one of his top performers to support the design and implementation of this org wide project.

He knows all of his team have been particularly busy, especially Lapinda, but Lapinda is his top performer, and she loves to be challenged.

She’s highly qualified and experienced and never misses deadlines or delivers shoddy work.  She also never says no, and Pedrov knows she’ll be a superstar and help him achieve on this project. 

He knows Lapinda is a perfectionist and always goes above and beyond to deliver top work. In fact, he recently asked her to mentor two of the other team members to lift the quality of their work.  It ruffled some feathers in the team and Lapinda has had a bit of a rough time with them, but they’ll get over it.

Pedrov arranges to meet with Lapinda and briefs her on the additional project he wants her to take on.

At first Lapinda listens attentively to what Pedrov has to say but as the conversation continues, she appears visibly angry.  Her posture is rigid and her face stern.

Pedrov is surprised when Lapinda directly asks – “Well what am I going to drop to focus on this project?”

Normally she doesn’t ask that, she just adds it to her load and works until it’s all done.  There’s no additional budget for another resource and her other tasks have pressing deadlines too.

He smiles and says, “You know how it is, no money, so we just have to get it done. It’s come from the top.”

Lapinda snaps “I can’t do it all, you need to stop loading me up all the time.” She gets up and leaves the office abruptly, saying “Get one of the other team to do it, we all get paid the same – why don’t they get the same workload,” and walks out the door.

Pedrov’s completely shocked by Lapinda’s response

“That was unregulated behaviour and I’d expect more from her.” he mutters to himself.

As he mulls over her behaviour, he starts to think a little less of Lapinda and asks himself if perhaps he’s over exaggerated her achievements in the past. She’s clearly not the high performer he thought she was.


Let’s analyse this event.


Remember that a fundamental attribution error occurs when we decide that the individual’s personality or attributes are responsible for the behaviour, rather than the situational context.

In our Pedrov and Lapinda scenario we know these facts:

  • Lapinda is a top performer, predisposed to taking on additional tasks for Pedrov and working extra hours to complete these extra demands.
  • Lapinda is having some tensions with her team having been asked to mentor them on the quality of their work.
  • Lapinda has been working hard for a long time now, this was not an isolated one-off request.
  • Pedrov’s expectations are high given Lapinda’s history of meeting his extra demands.
  • Lapinda has not previously responded in this manner when asked to take on extra demands.
  • Lapinda’s behaviour outside of this event has been perfectly fine.

What conclusions can you draw from this scenario?

Is Lapinda’s personality the cause of this encounter with Pedrov, or could the situational context be the cause?


Consider the following context:

  1. Lapinda is currently in an awkward time with her team after Pedrov’s request that she mentors them to improve their quality of work. Could this be creating some extra pressure and worry for her. Could this be impacting her relationships with her colleagues?
  2. Pedrov’s singled Lapinda out again for a special project. Given what’s going on within the team, could this be a concern for her – being seen to be a ‘favourite’?
  3. Lapinda has been working very hard for a long time and always says yes and delivers top performance. Is this ability finite? Is there a limit?
  4. Is it fair and acceptable that Lapinda is expected to continue to take on extra tasks without any additional support or ability to negotiate her priorities?


Assessing Causation

There are three things to consider when determining if we can attribute someone’s behaviour to internal or external causes.

  1. Consistency – Does this person usually behave this way in this situation?
  2. Distinctiveness – Does this person behave differently in this situation than in others?
  3. Consensus – Do others behave similarly in this situation?

If you apply these three considerations what is your conclusion?

Can we attribute this behaviour to Lapinda’s personality/disposition or to the situation she was in?

Fundamental Attribution Error and Psychosocial Hazards

When we consider the work-related stress risks of psychosocial hazards and how stress can negatively impact on individual behaviours, it’s important that we don’t fall victim to fundamental attribution error when responding to events in the workplace and that we take a broader view of the situation.

Proactively monitoring and assessing the risks of psychosocial hazards – as per OHS regulatory requirements – and addressing these systemic factors will help ensure work related stress risks are minimised.


Definitions – Psychosocial Hazards are the things in the design, systems, management and carrying out of work that can contribute to work-related stress.  Work-related stress where severe, unmanaged, or prolonged may lead to a mental injury.    

Tanya Heaney-Voogt

Director & Principal Consultant
MBA, ICFACC, MAHRI, Dip Mgt, Dip Coaching, Prosci® Certified Change Practitioner
E: tanya@tanyaheaneyvoogt.com

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