The Fundamental Attribution Error Changes Everything

fundamental attribution error

You may ask what the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is. Malcolm Gladwell writes about this in his bestselling book, Tipping Point. He writes that the Fundamental Attribution Error stems from the fact that people ‘instinctively want to explain the world around them in terms of people’s essential attributes.’

In other words, they do not take into account the setting, culture or external influences. Rather, they focus on immediately graspable facts first. So, ignorant of context, people will peg (brand) you in one way or another and cannot hold differing views simultaneously.

What does the Fundamental Attribution Error have to do with your branding as a non-executive director?

Ask yourself how people you meet or know you view you? What is it the core element that you are likely to be branded by? For the vast majority of people who aspire to a board appointment it is unfortunately likely that they are unlikely associated with board directorships. Instead, for many they are more likely to be branded as a: father or mother, sister or brother or as an executive (CEO, MD, HR, IT, Marketing …) or industry specialist – not a NED. Perhaps instead they define you by your extra-professional activities like the sport or charity work you are involved with. You must understand that no matter what you do, you are going to get pegged (branded). So, it is up to you to guide how they peg you. You want to make sure that they brand you as a Non-Executive Director. Remember, people who don’t know you (weak ties), and even those who know you well, only know what you tell them, so tell them you are a Non-Executive, building a board portfolio or even just looking for your first or next directorship.

Let your message be clear when making your board profile

Once you understand the Fundamental Attribution Error, you can start thinking how you can have a clear board message.

  • Reframe your aspirations. You need to move away from framing yourself as an executive, friend or colleague. Make sure that you pitch your board experience to reframe yourself as a non-executive director.
  • Never say that you ‘can do anything’. Be clear about what you want to do and what you can offer. If you are too general about what you can do, you will soon be forgotten. If you aren’t remembered for something specific, you will be remembered for nothing.
  • Mention specific people you are connected to. Connectedness shows gravitas, quality and provides comfort to the board about your appointment.
  • Understand the pressures on the board and the pain points they have to deal with. This is where your passion and cultural fit will come into play in a big way. Be attuned and sensitive to their nervousness in appointing a new director.
  • Always answer the question: “Why should we appoint you?”

By now you will already have quite a lengthy piece of writing. This can be the starting point for every board profile you write. But remember that your branding as a non-executive director is not only for the board profile you will be submitting to a board – you also need an elevator pitch for those instances when you are formally or informally introduced to a key person who can connect you to a board. While keeping all the above information in mind, you need to condense your board profile – and your elevator pitch – to the following points:

  • You have been in a similar role before
  • You are qualified for the role
  • You can do more than they require of you
  • You have an in-depth understanding of their business

What does it all mean for your board search?

Well, first impressions count. Further, the Fundamental Attribution Error, in the context of your board search, means that people only know what you tell them. It also means that you are going to be pegged one way or another. Further still, it is unlikely that you are going to be ‘pegged’ as a Non-Executive without specifically telling people of your board aspirations and changing the language you use to introduce yourself. The FAE reaches further too. It must impact upon the content and structure of your Board CV, your Board Applications and your Board Interviews. Understanding it and its impact truly is a crucial part of your board search and should revolutionise the way you frame yourself. Doing so will help you dare them not to appoint you.

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About the Author

David Schwarz is CEO & Founder of Board Direction – Australia’s leading board advertising and non-executive career support firm. He has over a decade of experience of putting people on boards as an international headhunter and a non-executive recruiter and has interviewed over one thousand non-executives and placed hundreds into some of the most significant public, private and NFP roles in the world. He has been described as Australia’s leading board recruitment expert, is a published author, a regular speaker on the board appointment process and runs Board Search Masterclasses across Australia. He is one of Australia’s Top 10 LinkedIn users with over 20,000 connections. Email: [email protected]