Why Is Attribution Theory Important?
Attribution theory is important for organizations because it can help managers understand some of the causes of employee behavior and can assist employees in understanding their thinking about their own behaviors. If you can understand why you behave a certain way, and why others around you do so, then you have a better understanding of yourself, others, and your organization. The perception of the causes of a certain behavior may affect the judgment and actions of both managers and employees. It may also play a significant role in motivation.
Attribution theory attempts to explain some of the causes of our behavior. According to the theory, you want to be able to understand the reason for the actions you take and understand the reasons behind the actions other people take. You want to attribute causes to these behaviors, which should give you some felling of control over your own behaviors and related situations.
Attributing behavior is a 3-stage process:
- You must observe the behavior, whether it is your own behavior or the behavior of someone else.
- You must determine whether the behavior being observed is intentional.
- You attribute the observed behavior.
When we attribute the behavior, there are three things we need to consider:
1. External cause or internal cause?
Internal cause: Internal causes are those factors that are attributed to the person being observed. Internal causes are usually controllable. For example, a co-worker just received a promotion. You believe the reason for her promotion was her hard work, dedication, and skills. You have thus attributed internal causes to her promotion.
External cause: External causes are attributed to factors outside of the person being observed. External causes are often not controllable, such as luck. For example, let's say your co-worker just received a promotion. You believe she received her promotion because the owner of the company is her father. You have attributed an external factor as the cause of her promotion.
2. Consistent or distinctive behavior?
When you observe a person behaving the same when he is faced with the same circumstances, the observed behavior is consistent. Consistency is low if the person behaves differently in similar circumstances, while it is high if the person acts the same in similar circumstances.
When you are determining whether a person behaves the same way in different circumstances, you are determining whether the behavior is distinctive. If a person behaves the same in different circumstances, then distinctiveness is low, while if the person behaves different in different circumstances, distinctiveness is high.
Consensus is high if other people act the same way as the person observed in the same circumstances, while consensus is low if other people act differently than the person observed in the same circumstances.
Let's say you are a manager at a car manufacturing company, and you are in charge of the welding operations on the assembly line. Tracey is a welder on the line who has been working for the company for a little over three months. She has been holding the line up ever since the start of her employment.
Her behavior has been highly consistent while working on the line. However, you do observe her efficiency increases substantially when she is doing other work off the line, telling you that there is a high level of distinction in her work behavior. Other employees on the line with a similar time with the company are substantially more efficient, indicating a low consensus.
The key question for you is whether Tracey's behavior is attributable to internal factors, such as laziness or some other external factor. Based upon your observations, it's a close call, so you review her personnel file from HR and see that she has significantly less formal training as a welder than the other newly-hired employees. Based on all of the factors, you attribute her inefficiency to the external factor of insufficient training and develop a plan with HR to have her go to a local tech school at night to acquire sufficient skills to do her job efficiently.
Attribution theory is a psychological theory that attempts to explain how we explain the actions or behaviors of others; in other words, how we attribute behavior. Attribution is a 3-step process that includes observing the behavior, determining whether the observed behavior is intentional or not, and determining whether the behavior is caused by external or internal factors. In determining whether behavior is based on internal or external factors, you look at the level of consistency, distinctiveness, and consensus of the behavior.
You should feel assured of your abilities after this lesson to:
- Define attribution theory
- Identify the three stages of attribution theory
- Discuss how to determine whether behaviors are based on internal or external factors
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- What is attribution theory? In particular, explain how this theory is a behavior science.
- Your current job is to oversee a sales team. Your boss calls you into her office one day and discusses a potential incentive program for your employees in order to get them to work harder and she wants your input. Explain how attribution theory is especially important in being able to make recommendations to your boss about what program or programs might work best.
- Discuss the importance of intent when trying to understand an employee's negative behavior.
- One of your co-workers has recently been slacking off at work and does not seem to be at his highest production level. He mentions that he is currently going through a divorce, which is causing him to be easily distracted. Is the cause of this lack of production internal or external? Your answer should discuss the difference between internal causes and external causes.
- A recent promotion recently came up at your job and all of your employees that are interested in the promotion have been working hard and being extremely nice since the job was announced. Why is it important to know if these behaviors are consistent or distinctive? Your answer should discuss the difference between consistent behaviors and distinctive behaviors.
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