We learn in history that Napoleon’s leadership and strategic skills were the reason for the French army’s success in the early 1800s. Or we believe player X or coach Y was solely responsible for a team winning the season.
This tendency where people "overestimate an individual’s influence and underestimate the external, situational factors around them" is called the fundamental attribution error.
For example, if an employee is late for a meeting, you might see them as lazy. Yet, when you’re late, you give an excuse based on outside factors.
Rolf Dobell, the author of The Art of Thinking Clearly, writes that the fundamental attribution error helps us whittle negative events into convenient little packages. For example, people tend to view low-income people using food stamps as unwilling to work and make the assumption, “If they just tried harder, they’d have a job.”
The fundamental attribution error happens when we focus on someone’s personality over external factors. For example, a low-income person may be a single parent, illiterate, suffer from mental health, come from a dysfunctional family, be dealing with an economic recession, or have limited access to job opportunities.
The solution is to focus on the context or the big picture before the person. This requires you to change your mental model, which is an explanation of how something works. It’s hard to do but delaying judgment helps you better understand and see someone’s actual circumstances and motivations. Listening increases empathy and makes it easier to walk in their shoes for a while.