The Fundamental Attribution Error

As laboratory safety professionals, we know that an important part of the job is the ability to coach other lab team members when unsafe situations are observed. To coach someone is to confront a coworker about an issue for the sake of safety-theirs, yours, or that of a patient. Those coworkers may be fellow lab employees, supervisors, managers, or even physicians. The word “confront” might sound strong, particularly to those who may be uncomfortable with these types of encounters, but this coaching is an important and valuable skill. 

Coaching your peers is no easy task, and it takes practice to be able to do it well. I recently walked into a laboratory that was unfamiliar to me, and I saw a technologist working at the bench with no lab coat, no gloves, and no face protection. At first I thought, “that would never happen in a one of my labs,” and then, “the lab safety culture here is terrible.”

I learned I was wrong on both counts, and the incident reminded me of the necessity to stop and think before forming an opinion or even speaking about a lab safety issue. I provide training often about how to coach staff who are acting unsafely while in the lab, and I have learned that how a coaching moment will go depends largely on what is in the head of the coach before he or she speaks. It is important to remember that if someone acts in a manner that displeases or disappoints you, there are several possible sources of influence acting on that person.

Psychologists have coined it the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” Humans who are disappointed usually think the other person has committed the wrong intentionally or because they are not intelligent. Neither of these conclusions is ever correct, and that thought process usually leads to a coaching session that will not be successful.

Take the scenario I mentioned above, for example. What is your gut reaction when you see someone working in a lab without PPE? Maybe that lab tech just found out a relative had passed away and they were waiting for someone to relieve them, or maybe there were no lab coats or gloves available in their size. The possibilities are endless, so you need to train yourself to be calm first and to ask questions to learn what is really happening without making assumptions. It’s more difficult to do than one would think.

The success of a safety coaching moment is determined in your head before you even speak. You have the power to make it a positive event. It is true that some people just will not accept it well no matter what we do (a reminder to ourselves to always be ready to accept coaching), but by and large a successful event starts in the mind of the person who is coaching for safety.

When you see a lab safety problem, it is vital that you confront the person. However, before you do so, ask yourself, “why would a rational person behave this way? What am I not seeing here?” If you start with that, your coaching for safety will be much more successful, and you will see a positive change in your overall lab safety culture.

Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.

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