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The Attribution Theory of Leadership

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Instructor: Rob Wengrzyn

Rob has an MBA in management, a BS in marketing, and is a doctoral candidate in organizational theory and design.

Assumptions can lead to misunderstandings and mistakes, and assumptions made by leaders about their employees can have negative consequences, which is known as the attribution theory of leadership. In this lesson, the reader will learn about this theory and how people make both internal and external attributions, and how this can impact leadership. Updated: 09/20/2021

What We See

You walk into a room and someone yells at you for being late. As you are talking to a person, they seem to not care about what you're saying. Someone that you know seems to be very quiet today and is not as talkative as he usually is. What do all these have in common? Well, when you heard the descriptions of how the people were acting, you began to make an assumption as to why they were acting that way.

This perspective is the foundation of the attribution theory of leadership. The attribution theory of leadership believes that individuals interpret events or happenings around them and this relates to their thinking and behavior.

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  • 0:05 Observation of Environment
  • 0:41 Attribution Theory Explained
  • 1:54 Internal and External Views
  • 2:42 Lesson Summary
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Attribution Theory Explained

At its very core, attribution theory believes that people will try to understand why people do what they do. Taking that perspective and applying it to leadership, we find that employees will interpret the abilities of a leader by observing how that leader behaves. Conversely, a leader that exhibits the attribution theory of leadership will do the same. The leader will try to understand why the employees do what they do and will develop that opinion by seeing the employee in the work environment.

The good aspect of this is the leader can see a person who does great work and thus develop an opinion of the person from that, or if that same person has a bad day, the leader could develop an opinion from that as well.

The impact of this on organizational behavior is fairly evident. We have leaders in an organization that will form their opinions of employees based on what they see, and the employees will do the same about the leader. We can all agree that sometimes what we see is not what we get, and thus, this aspect of leadership can have a negative impact on an organization.

In many ways, it can develop into a false sense of security or an improper picture of what the organization really has within its walls. This can happen by how the attribution is applied to the person or situation.

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