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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

The "C-Word" Every Leader Needs to Embrace

The human brain is amazing at processing information.

Imagine you’re walking your dog on a nice mountain trail. The sun is shining, flowers are blooming, and your pooch is as happy as can be. Suddenly you hear a rattling sound at the edge of the trail. You quickly turn your head to see a rattlesnake. You recoil and scream just as the snake slithers away.

Phew, close one.

What’s fascinating is that before you consciously knew what was amiss – before you even realized you were scared – your brain was mustering a fear response. In fact, had anyone been watching a few milliseconds before you turned your head they would have seen the fear micro-expression on your face.

Your brain is built to process information, and act upon it, as quickly as possible. From an evolutionary perspective that’s great.

In our highly social, interactive world it can sometimes cause problems.

Along with these built in neuropathways we develop, with life experience, thinking shortcuts called heuristics to help us quickly make sense of the world. While heuristics are valuable tools they sometimes lead to thinking traps called cognitive biases.

What does this have to do with the “C-Word” every leader needs to embrace?

I’m getting there.

I pride myself on timeliness. When I managed veterinary hospitals I held my team to the same expectation I had for myself – five minutes early is on time, on time is late, late is unacceptable. If a team member was late once, I’d excuse it. (No one’s perfect!). If they were late twice, I’d tell them to not be late again. Late three times? Now I’m beginning to wonder if this person even cares about their job.

That said, over the years, I was late to work on several occasions. Yet, each time, I had what I felt was a valid excuse. Flat tire, accident on the highway, emergency at home, you name it, it happened to me.

I realize, now, I was victim to the cognitive bias known as “Fundamental Attribution Error.”

We commit the fundamental attribution error when we falsely attribute people’s behavior to their personality.

For the tech who was late three times in a month I just “knew” this meant they didn’t care about their job and, by virtue, our hospital. “Something must be wrong with this person,” I’d find myself thinking.

The flip side of the fundamental attribution error is when we explain away our own behaviors in terms of the context or circumstances. That is, our mistakes or flaws are because of what happened to us – the mistakes or flaws of others are because of who they are as a person.

Sure, I was also late three times that month. But I had excuses! This tech is just “a bad egg.”


All of us commit the fundamental attribution error at various times. It’s an inevitable byproduct of being human.

Some of us commit this error frequently, especially in high-stress environments…like management and leadership.

I realize now I did it…All…The…Time…when I was in management.

How do you battle the fundamental attribution demons? By embracing that special “C-Word” I mentioned earlier.


We fall victim to the fundamental attribution error when we just “know” why someone is behaving a certain way. Sometimes we’re right. Most of the time we’re not.

Curiosity is the magic potion that changes “knowing” to Understanding. Understanding is a key component to empathy, perhaps the most important skill for any leader.

Curiosity is the magic potion that changes “knowing” to Understanding.

In some of my workshops I teach a simple, powerful tool for helping leaders embrace curiosity, build self-awareness, and have conversations that cultivate what’s most important in their workplace. It’s called “SBI” and it stands for Situation – Behavior – Impact.

For our “chronically” late tech it could look like this:

Manager to Tech: “This morning when your shift was scheduled to begin (Situation) you clocked in 6 minutes late, which was the third time this month you clocked in late (Behavior). This makes me feel as though your role here is not important to you (Impact).”

That’s it!

Now your tech gets to respond and, with your curiosity hat on, you get to discover some important information. Maybe something difficult is going on in their life? Maybe they have actually been wanting to talk to you about their schedule but were too scared to? Maybe they actually don’t care about their role at your hospital?

Whatever it is, you won’t assume – you’ll discover.

And maybe next time you’re late to work someone will toss some SBI your way and they’ll get to learn some new information about your world.

- written by Josh Vaisman

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