What ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ Means For MSPs

Let’s delve into a psychological concept known as the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’. This term was introduced in the 1970s by social psychologist Lee Ross. It describes a pervasive bias where we tend to explain someone’s behaviour based on their personality traits, overlooking the role of situational influences.

To illustrate this, if someone cuts you off in traffic, your immediate reaction might be to label them as rude or reckless. This is the Fundamental Attribution Error in action—you’re attributing their behaviour to their personality, ignoring situational factors such as maybe they’re rushing to an emergency.

By way of another example, imagine you have a colleague who often arrives late to team meetings. When this happens, your immediate instinct might be to attribute their tardiness to personal traits like laziness or a lack of commitment. You may think they simply don’t care enough to be punctual.

However, what you might not consider are the situational factors that could contribute to their lateness. Perhaps they have a long commute or unreliable public transportation, which is causing delays beyond their control. Maybe they have personal obligations or family responsibilities that occasionally make them run behind schedule.

By solely attributing their tardiness to their personal character, you overlook the situational influences that could be contributing to their behaviour.

How does this apply to a Managed Service Provider?

First, let’s think about your potential clients. When a system fails or an outage occurs, the Fundamental Attribution Error can cause clients to blame themselves or their team for not managing their IT infrastructure properly. An MSP can address this in their marketing and sales strategy by emphasising the complexity of IT management and the commonality of such issues. This shows empathy.

Similarly, the MSP can encourage clients to consider the external factors impacting their IT performance, rather than attributing problems to internal failures. By shifting this perspective, an MSP can position its services as a strategic investment for improving operations and mitigating external risks.

Let’s say you’re an MSP offering cybersecurity services. Many small to medium-sized businesses may have experienced a security breach or data loss in the past. These incidents can lead them to blame themselves or their employees for the breach, attributing it to a lack of caution or incompetence.

In your marketing approach, instead of reinforcing this self-blame, you can utilise the Fundamental Attribution Error to reframe their perspective. Highlight the sophisticated tactics used by cybercriminals, the evolving nature of cybersecurity threats, and the challenges of staying ahead in a rapidly changing landscape.

By emphasizing these external factors, you can help potential clients shift their attributions from personal failures to recognising the complex nature of cybersecurity threats. Position your MSP as a trusted partner who understands the nuances of cybersecurity, highlighting how your expertise and comprehensive solutions can protect their business from sophisticated attacks.

Additionally, you can provide educational content that explains common cybersecurity vulnerabilities and emphasises that even well-trained employees can unknowingly fall victim to social engineering or sophisticated phishing attempts. By doing so, you address the Fundamental Attribution Error by illustrating that breaches can happen to any organisation, regardless of internal competence or intentions.

Once again, it’s worth looking internally too. Within your own team, awareness of the Fundamental Attribution Error can enhance your management approach. If an employee makes a mistake, it’s crucial to consider external factors like workload, training, or communication issues before attributing the error to the individual’s incompetence. We’ve all had a boss or someone significant in our lives that is always too quick to judge when something outside of your control affects your performance so I’m sure you can recognise how powerful neutralising this effect can be for your team’s morale.

This promotes a growth mindset and fosters a supportive environment where employees are more likely to thrive and deliver high-quality service, thereby increasing staff loyalty and retention.


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Mike Knight