The attribution of attribution theory

Many a year ago, I learned about attribution theory in psychology. It’s an interesting theory which explains what mental process we go through if something good or bad happens in your life. In essence, the theory says, if something bad happens, you tend to look inwardly and attribute the cause to yourself. If something good happens, you tend to look externally and attribute the cause to something else. For example, if you didn’t get the job you applied for, you’re more likely to think “it’s because I wasn’t good enough for the job”. If however, you do get the job you’re more likely to say “it’s because they couldn’t find anyone else”.

There’s more to the theory which can be well read on Wikipedia here. A particular part of the theory which has always fascinated me is the fundamental attribution error. This says that we can be more ready to attribute a cause for behaviour as being a fundamental flaw in someone’s personality as opposed to looking at situational or other factors that may explain it better.

The theory does try and take account of cultural differences, but does this in a broad sense where it talks about individualistic or collectivist cultures. I don’t think that does it justice, as though I live in, and have been born and raised in an individualistic culture, my family culture is collectivist, which seems to be at odds with what the theory suggests. I’d say also that the country you are in bears significantly on how you choose to attribute cause. For example, British culture promotes modesty, American culture promotes success, Indian culture promotes humility, French culture promotes directness. These all influence where we attribute cause of behaviour to.

And then there’s work environments too. Does your company promote a certain style of working? How does it promote its culture? How does it promote its values? What are its values? How does progression and promotion happen? Is there focus on team success or individual success? How are these understood by staff? How are these communicated? How do managers help? Is the recognition process clear and transparent or veiled behind policies? Are there clear motivational goals? Are staff set objectives? These also influence where we attribute cause of behaviour.

So what should we be aiming for? Is it better to look internally or to look externally for cause of behaviour? I don’t think this theory is enough to be able to direct us on that. I think what it offers is a way of thinking about other factors we may consider when thinking about the work environment, and where people attribute behaviours too. Do you understand your staff’s motivation? Do you know where this comes from? Have they had feedback on their performance? Has this been directed to them personally or about actions they’ve undertaken? Have they had coaching  to develop their skills? do they see they can uncover answers for themselves or are reliant on you to direct them? Have they been set clear objectives? Were they set jointly, by the member of staff or by the manager?

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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