The Theory of Attribution In Organizational Behavior: Definition and Three Determinants

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rob Wengrzyn

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

Attribution Theory asserts that people's own thoughts and beliefs influence how they perceive other people and situations. Explore internal and external attributes, the three determinants, and how we 'see what we want to see' in organizational behavior. Updated: 09/19/2021

We See What We Want to See

John rushes in the front door, slams his briefcase on the kitchen table and runs upstairs. You pass a friend at the mall and he does not have time to talk to you. Sarah is sitting at her desk laughing hysterically while the phone rings.

What do all these situations have in common? Well, as you read them, you probably had your own interpretation of what was going on. Some of you may have thought John was angry when he came home, while others might have thought he was just in a hurry to change his clothes. The friend that passed you in the mall that didn't have time to talk to you - some may have thought that that friend was running late for something, while others might have thought the friend was blowing you off. Finally, some of you might have thought Sarah was ignoring her job as the phone was ringing, while others might have thought someone said something funny to her and she did not want to answer the phone while she was laughing.

All of these are examples of attribution theory, which is how people interpret events and, in their minds, relate them to the way they think or behave. You see, each of you listened to those situations and attributed the actions of the people in those situations based on your thinking and how you behave. It is important to us as humans to understand why individuals behave like they do, and this is the foundation of attribution theory. We can either interpret situations we are in and figure out why we acted the way we did, or look at others and try to determine why they acted the way they did.

As it relates to organizational behavior, interpretation of actions or comments plays a large part in how individuals interact in an office environment. Since communication is a vital aspect of organizational behavior, if attribution theory is present and impacts that communication, it will impact how a company functions.

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Internal and External Attributes

Attribution theory can be divided up into two different sections, internal and external attributes. When we are discussing internal attributes, we are saying that the behavior is being caused by something inside the person. Conversely, external attributes point to the cause of the behavior to be the situation, not the person. Thus, we as individuals look at the situation and in our minds view it as either the person or the persons reacting to a situation, which are similar to the examples we just spoke about.

Three Determinants of this Theory

As we try to understand the causes for the actions of others, we must look at three aspects that help us to understand those actions. Those three areas are consistency, distinctiveness and consensus. Let's take a look at these first.

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