How to Avoid the Fundamental Attribution Error – Episode 205 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

how to avoid fundamental attribution error

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3 Signs That Your Team Is Stuck

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A lot of stuck churches have stuck teams. This may be a result of the leader’s tendency toward health or performance. Or it may be a transparency issue: Staff members will often only show their “best selves” to the lead pastor, which can lead to a false assumption of health and performance.

Healthy churches need leadership teams that are both healthy and high-performing. In this new podcast series, we’ll be working through three of the signs that your team is stuck.


This week, Amy and I are breaking down a recurring theme we’ve noticed in the results of the Unstuck Teams Assessment: the Fundamental Attribution Error. The Fundamental Attribution error has a strong effect on the ways our team interacts, builds trust, and ultimately, how we perform.

Join us as we discuss:

  • The root cause of the Fundamental Attribution Error
  • 5 characteristics of a team without trust
  • Modeling vulnerability as a leader
  • 4 ways to avoid the Fundamental Attribution Error
When it comes to other people’s failures, we tend to fill the gap with suspicion. But when it comes to our failures, we tend to fill the gap with trust. #unstuckchurch [episode 205] Click to Tweet In order to create a dynamic of trust on a team, leaders have to model and practice vulnerability. #unstuckchurch [episode 205] Click to Tweet

Leader Conversation Guide

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Links & Resources from the Episode


Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. More often than not, when a church gets stuck, so does their team. At the same time, what we find in the healthiest churches is there’s a balance of team health and high performance. So often it’s hard for leaders to monitor both well. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy start a three weeks series on how your church can assess, manage, and improve the health of your team both now and into the future. But before you listen today, make sure you subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’ll get resources to go along with each week’s episode, including the leader conversation guide, access to our podcast resource archive, and bonus resources that you won’t find anywhere else. Just go to and subscribe. Now let’s join Tony and Amy as we start our three week series on team health.

Amy (00:58):

Well, hello to all of our listeners today, maybe you’re out for a run, driving to church, running errands, or like me minutes ago, hand watering my yard per our Minnesota drought watering ban requirements. But wherever you are listening from today, we’re so glad that you’ve joined Tony and I. And today we’re kicking off a new three week series and you know, Tony, usually we’re talking about topics related to when churches are stuck, but for the next three weeks, we’re going to talk about topics related to when your team is stuck.

Tony (01:27):

Yeah, Amy, I’m super excited about this series, and the reason why we want to spend three weeks on this discussion is because we have noticed a lot of stuck churches, honestly, they also have stuck teams, and there may be a correlation there. In fact, our friend, Lance Witt, who’s the Director of Unstuck Teams, released a book not too long ago about High-Impact Teams. And he explains that the best teams are both healthy and high performing. And Amy, you work with teams every day. What if we switch this up and I ask you some questions for the next three weeks? Are you open to that?

Amy (02:06):

Yeah, that sounds great to me, but I’ll probably be asking you some questions back as well.

Tony (02:09):

That’s fine. That’s fair. I can handle that. Why don’t we start here? Why do you think addressing the problem of stuck teams is so important, Amy?

Amy (02:18):

Well, a couple of thoughts. First, this is an area that most senior pastors often aren’t very aware of. Some lead pastors are aware of the performance of their team. They keep an eye on that, but not necessarily the health. And maybe I could say other pastors are aware of the health, but not the performance. It’s just kind of rare where a pastor has a good idea of whether they’re healthy in both of those areas. And so, and I often explain to lead pastors, as the leader of their organization, team members often show their best selves to the lead pastor. They don’t show what’s under the hood, which leads, I think, to this false assumption that teams are healthy. And then when a team takes the Unstuck Teams Assessment, I’ve talked to you about this, the senior pastor is often surprised by all or at least some of the results. And I always tell them it’s okay. You know, it’s good to understand the perspectives of their team. And with every church I’ve worked with related to the Unstuck Teams Assessment, there’s just great learnings in there. Nuggets of truth that it’s good for leadership to come to terms with. And well, maybe the way I just set this up, Tony, pastors aren’t going to want to take it. But I often say taking the assessment is like stepping on the scale or going to the doctor. You know, most days we dread things like that. But as we often say in leadership circles, facts are our friends. And maybe this will help prompt more leaders to actually pursue the facts of their team, but the Unstuck Teams Assessment, you know, it’s usually only available for churches that have engaged us for consulting or they’ve subscribed to our learning hub. But for a limited time, listeners, we’re offering it free to our podcast listeners. And I have to say, Tony, after a year of remote work, all the quick pivots, all these teams went through, unique personal stress, all the strategy changes we went through, most church staff teams I’ve talked to, they’re exhausted. At best, many feel burnt out, but honestly at worst, a lot of leaders, I find, when we talk, they’re kind of questioning their calling. And so it just reveals to me that there’s a lot of unhealth out there. And so for our listeners with this tool, you’ll engage your team to have this honest assessment of six critical areas. There’s personal health, team health, personal performance, team performance, systems and culture. It’s a 73 question survey. And after all of that, you’ll get a comprehensive report to help you prioritize what are the key next steps we need to take to be a healthier and high-performing team. And I’ll give more specifics at the end of the podcast, but I just wanted to let you know, as we’re talking about all this, you can access it for free.

Tony (05:09):

Amy, you’ve worked with a lot of teams that have taken the Unstuck Teams Assessment previously. When you see the results, have you noticed any trends with teams being healthy but not high performing or the reverse, they’re high performing but not healthy?

Amy (05:25):

Yeah. In fact, that’s why we actually called this episode, “The Fundamental Attribution Error,” because that is one of the trends. But to answer your question, you know, every team is different. So every assessment is unique, but this fundamental attribution error has shown up in, I think, every assessment that I’ve reviewed with teams. So, let me walk through that a little bit. When we look at the health of the teams, the fundamental attribution error reflects that most team members feel like they are doing better than the team. So when I talk about personal health, the scores on the assessment will reflect higher scores for personal health than team health. And they’ll reflect higher scores in personal performance over team performance. And that is the fundamental attribution error. Have you ever heard of that tendency before, Tony?

Tony (06:17):

I’m familiar with the concept, Amy. It doesn’t surprise me. I mean this, maybe this is a little bit of just human nature, not just church teams. I think it’s just a little bit of human nature that we sense we may be stronger, healthier than others around us because we know ourselves, but we don’t really know the other people around us.

Amy (06:37):

Yeah. For listeners who this is a new concept, the fundamental attribution error does just that. It refers to a person’s tendency to attribute other person’s actions, which is typically their failures, as carelessness, laziness or bad character. Whereas the person will tend to attribute their own behavior to external factors, which are out of their control. So for example, when a colleague is late to a meeting, we tend to think they’re lazy. They’re not bothered by being late. We think this person didn’t have the discipline to get here on time, and we blame their character or their personality. But then a week later, when we show up to that same meeting late, we find it easy to blame our tardiness on things like, well, it was bad traffic, or I couldn’t cut off this really important conversation. In other words, you’re going to attribute to yourself good reasons why you should be let off the hook for showing up late. It wasn’t your character, but external factors that just caused you to be late. And I see this play out again in those areas of personal health and performance, where we rate ourselves higher than the team.

Tony (07:41):

Amy, this actually reminds me, I think it’s Andy Stanley, who has talked about how we fill in the gaps when something like this occurs, and we can either fill in the gap with trust or suspicion. And I think you’re saying when it’s other people’s failures, we tend to fill the gap with suspicion. When it’s our own failures, we tend to fill the gap with trust.

Amy (08:04):

That’s right. And this, you said it earlier, it’s not unique to church teams. This is a human tendency we see across the board in every organization. In fact, the Harvard Business Review recently wrote an article called, “The Biases You Don’t Know You Have,” and this tendency, the fundamental attribution error, was called out in it. And when we have this bias, it causes teams to have a lack of trust with one another, right? Just think if we fill every gap, information gap, with suspicion, it erodes the trust on the team. And Tony, I’ve heard you talk about what happens when there’s a lack of trust on the team. Can you share some of those thoughts with us?

Tony (08:41):

Amy, you’re absolutely right. I mean, there are certain predictable outcomes when there’s an absence of trust. As an example, you begin to conceal weaknesses and mistakes, both individually and as an organization. You hesitate to ask for help or offer help to others. You tend to jump to conclusions. You dread meetings. Now I’m beginning to wonder if this is an issue I’m wrestling with, Amy. You hold grudges. And I think actually Patrick Lencioni in his book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” offers some great advice on the absence of trust and how it’s really the biggest dysfunction you can have on a team. All of the things I’ve just listed can be expected, really, if your teams can’t trust one another. So the question becomes, how can we create a dynamic of trust on the team? And Lencioni explains that trust is not simply being able to predict what your team members are going to do, but trust at its core looks like vulnerability. It’s saying things like, “I need help.” “I think I made a mistake” or even, “I’m sorry.” That builds better trust than anything else that we can do. And really the Unstuck Teams Assessment will require you to be vulnerable with yourself and with your team. And we designed it to be this way so that trust can be formed through the process of evaluating your personal and team health and performance. And, Amy, I’d love to hear more about some of the trends that you have found with some of the lower scores on the assessment. In other words, beyond the fundamental attribution error, do you think there are any other reasons why team’s scores are lower than personal scores?

Amy (10:30):

Yeah, I do think there’s a couple of reasons. Let me start by saying most people on the team are not at the top. Right? They’re in the middle of the organization. And because of that, they don’t get to make a lot of decisions, and they don’t have a lot of ownership over the questions that we’re asking in the assessment. And they, because of that too, they don’t own it. They tend to set the bar pretty high on what they expect from a team and from the leaders in the organization. And I would say, Tony, I would particularly call out the younger team members, people who haven’t been working for an extended amount of time, younger team members have a picture or an expectation of how leadership and a team should function. And when you compare what they experience versus what they expect, they’re often more disappointed than some of the workers, the team members who have been around for a while. And so I think this is why we see team scores get hit even harder by younger team members. But here’s why I think another reason why team’s scores look a little bit lower. And let me give you some examples of how the questions are when it comes to personal response versus team response. So one of the ones under personal performance is, “My role aligns with my gifting and passion.” That’s often a really high score, right? Cause they agree with that. But then there’s another one that says I receive affirmation when I’m doing a good job. And unless a church is really intentional about this, this is usually a lower score. And why? Because team members have a certain expectation that their work is going to be noticed. This goes back to what I was saying earlier. Senior pastors don’t always know what their employees are thinking. They often assume that if team members are in a good mood and they’re producing good results, that their team health is great. But when you look at the results from team health, it reflects a need for pastors to recognize and affirm the work of their team. And it’s very important to team members that they receive affirmations about their good work. Another example on the personal performance side, a question or a statement is, “I’m constantly learning, growing, and striving to get better at my job.” We see people giving themselves the benefit of the doubt with high scores here. In other words, they’re saying, of course I’m constantly striving and learning. But when you get over to the team performance question, things like, “The objectives and priorities of our team are clear.” That one often again gets a low score. And now I find most of the time leaders expect this score to be higher. They say things like, “We talk about this all the time. I don’t know how we can make their priorities and objectives any more clear.” But yet as a team member, expectations again, are very high for leaders to get nearly everything right. And so we see that fundamental attribution error reflected in the way team members score their leaders. Just a quick story. I just worked with the church this past month, and the score on the question or the statement, “We celebrate our wins,” it came back quite low, and the pastor and the executive pastor were both like, “I don’t know how we can celebrate our wins any more than we already are.” Every week at our staff, our all staff meeting, we celebrate wins and we tell stories, and they really felt a little blindsided by the reaction of their team. But now note, 30 to 40 people participated in this. So it wasn’t like one person just had an ax to grind on this issue. So I just challenged them. I said, maybe you’re talking about the winds and clapping for your victories, but is there a different way you can be celebrating? In other words, the celebrating, air quote, celebrating, I think, maybe was becoming a bit invisible because it was just getting too rote in how they were celebrating it. So I asked, is there a better way? And we brainstorm for a little bit, and one idea was to bring a food truck in next month and clearly explain that this was brought in to celebrate a specific win, a hill that the team took. And by the way, that might not be the right solution. I was just trying to get them to think differently and accept the results of the assessment, but what they really need to do, and we coach churches on this, is to process the results with their team, because they’re the ones who created those scores. And when the results of the assessment are shared with the entire team, there’s always better discovery. And by the way, it invites the entire team to be invested in getting the team healthier. And you said it earlier, just to call it out, that vulnerability piece, Tony. Pastors who engage this with their teams, they get some vulnerability and humility chips built up with their team, because it’s unfortunately too rare that leaders actually ask their teams for their opinions. And so when you share those results, the team can help own it and actually hone in on really what are the top priorities?

Tony (15:08):

Oh, that’s so helpful, Amy. All right. So we know we think more highly of ourselves while being harder on the team outcomes. Are there ways that we can learn to avoid acting on that fundamental attribution error?

Amy (15:22):

Absolutely. And a large part of combating that is learning, like you said, to fill in the gaps with trust where we tend to have suspicion, I’ll go back to that Harvard Business Review article. They really talked about this word gratitude as the best way to fight against this attribution error, and the article challenges us to train our brains to actually think of five positive attributes of that person instead of thinking about the negatives. And maybe just for a minute, if all our listeners can just get a person, you know, in their mind, who they tend to fill the gap with suspicion for a minute. Instead they said, train your brain to think about the five positive attributes of that person. And by the way, my personal recommendation, it wasn’t in the article, but to pray for that person. There’s always a lot more, we have to remember, going on in our coworkers lives than any of us could ever be fully aware of. And I just find that prayer gives me the right, you know, swing thought towards that person. You can also try this. The next time someone’s late for a meeting, just for a moment, put yourself in their shoes, right? Think back to the last time you were late and now try to attach all those positive reasons why you were late when you keep them in mind. And by the way, I’m not saying that we just tolerate chronic tardiness, things like that. We get what we tolerate, right? We don’t want to do that. But what I am saying is that we shouldn’t assume negatives about others that we would assume positively of ourselves. So as we work alongside our teammates, filling that gap with trust, praying for them, giving them the benefit of the doubt, it’s going to go a long way in increasing the team atmosphere.

Tony (16:55):

It’s funny you were talking about being late, and I was remembering early on. I had just graduated from my master’s degree in basically local government, it was public administration. And I got my very first city manager’s job out in this small community, out in Iowa. The very first big meeting that I was ever a part of, all of the business leaders of the community, the chambers of commerce, I overslept. I was like, I’ve so rarely done that in my life. And I overslept and everybody was already seated, and they were engaged in the meeting, and here comes this young, new city manager. So I’m glad that they had a lot of trust for me after that moment. Well, thank you, Amy, for explaining why it’s critical to have high-impact teams which are both high performing healthy. And if you’re not sure where your team is at, we’re offering the Unstuck Teams Assessment for free for a limited time, and we’re doing a masterclass that will be fully devoted to Unstuck Teams on August 19th. Amy, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?

Amy (18:08):

Well, two final thoughts, and it’s actually the two final actions that you just talked through. So listeners, take the assessment. If we want to be healthy churches, we have to have healthy teams. And so if you have even an inkling that your team could be more impactful, whether it’s in the area of health or performance, take the Unstuck Teams Assessment. And as I mentioned earlier, for a limited time, we’re making it available for free to our podcast listeners. So to access the assessment for your team, go to and then enter the coupon code “teams2021.” We tried to make that really easy, Tony. By the way, we recommend this tool for teams of at least 10 individuals. If your team is smaller than that, I’m not sure you’re going to be able to get a healthy kind of summary of what things are going on because one or two responses can really impact the results. But the second action, and you mentioned it, but we would love you guys to join us for our masterclass on August 19th. It’s a one day masterclass, and it features Lance Witt, along with Tony and myself, and several special guests from churches across the United States. It’s focused on the principles and the skills we need to get our teams back on track. And specifically, participants will be equipped to first find the right balance between health and high performance. Second, how to invest in the spiritual and emotional health of your teams. Third, how to take your team’s management skills to a higher level and fourth, how to build a life giving culture to help you more effectively fulfill your mission. And you can find out more about that at our website, And again, Tony, you have said this over the last couple, we are finding teams that bring their teams to these masterclasses get a lot of traction coming out of those.

Sean (20:00):

Thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. As Amy mentioned, we’d love to have you and your team join us on the upcoming masterclass on August 19th. During the day, you’ll hear from Lance, Tony, Amy and more on how your team can be both healthy and high performing. It’s coming up on August 19th, and you can register at If you like what you’re hearing on this podcast and it’s been helpful for you, we’d love your help in getting the content out. And you can do that by rating and review us on your favorite podcasting platform. Next week, we’re back with week two of our series. So until then, we hope you have a great week.

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