Attribution Theory and the Workplace
April 1, 2012 1 Comment
Attribution theory asserts that people need an explanation for why they experience certain outcomes. For example, we might ask: Why didn’t I meet my deadline? Why didn’t my boss like my proposal? Why didn’t I meet my sales goal this month? Why didn’t I get a promotion? Attributions are the reasons that people come up with to explain an outcome (both positive and negative). Attributions are important because they can generate emotional reactions and affect our motivation. It’s important for managers to understand that how employees attribute both their successes and failures depends on many factors, including self-efficacy, self-concept, and explanatory/attribution style (Reeve, 2009, 353).
Employees can easily get derailed and demotivated if they don’t understand why their efforts didn’t pay off as they expected, and some may attribute the negative outcome to the wrong reason. This can have disastrous consequences, causing an employee to quit or lash out in anger/take revenge. It’s amazing that the simple act of taking time to be honest and forthcoming with employees can sometimes prevent this from happening. As Reeve (2009) explains, “…change the attribution and you change the emotion” (p. 355). Even if the employee’s initial attribution was correct, hearing the reason for the outcome directly from someone who knows the truth about the situation (manager, HR rep, etc.) is more likely help the employee face the consequences with more confidence than uncertainty would. Unfortunately, organizations often put legal concerns (employee lawsuits) ahead of the need to help an employee work through his/her emotions.
Following are the emotions that usually stem from positive and negative attributions (Reeve, 2009, 355):
- Pride – an internal cause, i.e., “I succeeded because of my experience and ability.”
- Gratitude – an external cause, i.e., “I succeeded because of help from my coworkers.”
- Hope – a stable cause, i.e., “I did well because I am good at analysis.”
- Anger – an external, controllable cause, i.e., “I lost my job because I wouldn’t ‘suck up’ to the boss.”
- Pity/Sympathy – an external, uncontrollable cause, i.e., “I lost my job because of the poor economy.”
- Guilt – an internal, controllable cause, i.e., “I failed because I didn’t put forth much effort.”
- Shame – an internal, uncontrollable cause, i.e., “I didn’t get the job because of my personality.”
Everyone has a self-concept—a view of themselves, either positive or negative, that they are constantly trying to maintain. A person’s self concept is rooted in his/her experiences. A person with a high self-concept certainty, rooted in self-efficacy and self-esteem, is more likely to view a negative outcome as one incident in the context of a lifetime of experiences, not as a defining moment. A person with low self-concept certainty facing a negative outcome is more likely to be vulnerable to questioning his/her self-concept and may experience a crisis of identity (Reeve, 2009, 271). People will often try to invalidate self-discrepant feedback or outcomes, as a way of preserving their self-concept. This is often the case when people defend their actions and refuse to accept any responsibility for a negative outcome, or when people discredit the source of the feedback, blame others, justify their behavior, or look for self-affirmation/support from others. When this is happening in the workplace, it’s understandable that tensions arise for everyone involved. It’s important for managers to keep calm and recognize that the person is trying to maintain his/her self-concept. Often, once people have a chance to consider the outcome or feedback with less emotionality, they can resolve to handle things more maturely and professionally. Sometimes that happens quickly and sometimes it takes more time, so it’s important to be patient!
Self-concept is closely tied to one’s explanatory/attribution style. People with low self-concept certainty are more likely to have a pessimistic attribution style, whereas people with high self-concept certainty are more likely to have an optimistic or hostile attribution style. In the book “Organization Behavior, Theory, and Design in Health Care,” authors Harvey and Martinko (2009) describe these three types of attribution styles:
- Pessimistic attribution style – People with this style believe that negative outcomes are caused by internal and controllable factors such as lack of intelligence, and positive outcomes are caused by external and unstable factors such as luck. As the name suggests, people with this style tend to lack confidence and are pessimistic about their future success, and often struggle with anxiety and depression.
- Optimist attribution style – People with this style believe that that negative outcomes are caused by external, unstable factors and positive outcomes are caused by internal, controllable factors. They tend to feel good about themselves and their capacity for success; however, they can sometimes hold unfounded beliefs that can set them up for disappointment.
- Hostile attribution style – People with this style are similar to those with an optimistic style, in that they attribute negative outcomes to external factors. However, the difference is that they consider those external factors to be controllable in nature. As the name suggests, people with this style tend to exhibit hostility toward the external entity (i.e., their manager), which can lead to aggression and even violence.
Over time, managers can learn to identify an employee’s attribution style, especially if they provide frequent feedback. This is important because they can use this information to help motivate employees and to tailor their approach to working with them. For example, someone with a pessimistic attribution style and low self-efficacy can be helped by being given assignments that allow them to succeed early on and build their confidence as they progress to more complex tasks. In dealing with someone with an optimistic attribution style, managers can help the employee gauge whether or not they are capable of a certain type of project by having them shadow someone doing that job or linking them with a mentor higher up in the organization. Recognizing and dealing with someone with a hostile attribution style might be difficult since this style can look similar to the optimistic style. However, this style in particular, will benefit from open communication that leads to correct attributions for outcomes. This is one type of employee that managers do not want to leave guessing about a poor performance appraisal, demotion, layoff, or other negative outcome.
I remember getting the advice from an older colleague very early in my career to never assume anything, after I had made a significant blunder. He said, “Ass-u-m-ptions make an ass out of you and me.” It’s common that false assumptions and incorrect attributions lead to misunderstandings. I think it’s a safe bet that this happens many times in organizations every day! Although I still make assumptions, I’ve trained myself to question them and keep an open mind…and most importantly, to ask people for more information about why a certain outcome occurred instead of trying to attribute it to something without all the facts. Over the years, I’ve learned that developing self-efficacy and resilience, along with self-acceptance and self-compassion, is key to dealing with undesirable outcomes at work. It’s almost guaranteed that people will make mistakes at work….every manager knows that. But, what many employees would benefit from realizing is that often their managers are more interested in their responses to mistakes, negative feedback, and setbacks than in the mistake itself. Managers can help employees deal with mistakes by coaching them to reappraise them and see them as learning opportunities.
Reeve, J. ( 2009). 5th edition. Understanding Motivation and Emotion. New York: Wiley Press.
Harvey, P., & Martinko, M.J. (2009). Attribution theory and motivation. In N. Borkowski (Ed.), Organizational Behavior, Theory and Design in Health Care (pp. 143-158). Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.