The attribution theory in the workplace

Human beings are motivated to assign causes to their actions and behaviours. Attribution is the process by which individuals explain the causes of behaviour and events. You may have heard of Weiner’s attribution theory; one which assumes that we try to determine why people do what they do, or the way in which we interpret causes to an event or behaviour.

In order to understand the way in which we use attribution, you need to understand the three-stage process that underlies an attribution:

  1. The behaviour must be observed/perceived
  2. The behaviour must be determined to be intentional
  3. The behaviour is attributed to internal or external causes

When we succeed, we tend to attribute our successes internally. The success we experience, we attribute to our own skills and personal attributes. When we fail or make mistakes, on the other hand, we are more likely to use external attribution, assigning the cause to situational factors (rather than blaming ourselves).

Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as self-serving bias. Why are we more likely to attribute our success to our personal characteristics and blame outside variables for our failures? Because by blaming external factors for our failures, we are protecting our egos and our self-esteem.

When it comes to the way we attribute behaviour to others, the reverse is true. When others have success, we tend to credit external factors (such as good luck, or favourable market conditions), rather than assign the cause of the success to the skills of the person themselves. When we see others failing however, we are more likely to use internal attribution – assigning the cause of the failure to internal characteristics of the person.

This tendency is referred to as the fundamental attribution error; even though situational variables are very likely present, we automatically attribute the cause of another’s failure to internal characteristics.

So why is this little aspect of human nature and social psychology relevant to leaders in the modern workplace?

How to counterbalance the Attribution Error in the workplace

It’s important that we are aware of this tendency in the workplace if we want to avoid a culture of blame and if we want to build a positive and collaborative culture where accountability and trail-and-error growth are desired. If human nature propels us to preserve our egos, avoiding self-reflection whilst blaming others, then we have to work extra hard to create work cultures that actively work against this tendency.

A self-aware leader will take a two-fold approach. Firstly, he or she will need to ensure they are aware of their self-preservation inclinations and take a more objective perspective when it comes to observing their own successes and failures. They need to ensure they are not too quick to put their wins down to their own skill, and not so quick to blame their mistakes on external circumstances. By openly admitting our own short-comings and mistakes we are modelling a more growth-centric behavioural framework to redefine our own work culture and encourage the same from others. Gone are the days where vulnerability was seen as a weakness. We are living in a world where we are much more aware of our emotional wellbeing and our abilities to be real about our imperfect selves and to show others our commitment to learn and grow from our mistakes.

Secondly, a good leader will encourage mistakes and failings as an opportunity for others to resist blaming external factors and others for mistakes, but rather to reflect more truthfully on how the mistakes happened and how to avoid them in the future. If people know they are not going to get fired for making mistakes, they may be less likely to cover them up. If they know they are going to be respected for self-reflection and admitting mistakes, they will be less likely to blame others.

The attribution theory can manifest in so many ways in the workplace. For example, if a person gets a promotion, it will be ‘natural’ for those left behind to attribute the promotion to the person being the manager’s ‘favourite’ instead of attributing it to their experience and skills. In this case, a good leader needs to be sensitive to this and take steps to ensure the productivity and health of the workplace is not negatively impacted by such assumptions. Maybe taking a more transparent approach, fully explaining the promotion to others and taking those left behind aside to explain why they were not chosen and how they can prepare and step up on their own career path.

As a leader, you can’t completely eliminate people incorrectly assigning internal and external attributions to situations and behaviours, but with an awareness and sensitivity to our tendency to do this, you can help minimise some of the impact.

Could you and your leadership team do with one of my tailored workshops? I’d love to share my experience and fool-proof leadership techniques with you. Don’t hesitate. Get in touch today.

Share News