Attribution Theory in Performance

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Managers can help employees succeed.
Managers can help employees succeed. (Image: Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Attribution theories help management understand how customers and employees think about events, which reveals information about their motivation, behavior and thinking processes. Making inaccurate attributions about the causes of customer buying behavior or poor employee performance, for example, may result in negative choices or consequences for an organization.

Concept

Attribution is a social psychology concept that refers to how the individual explains the causes of specific behavior or events. Attribution theory serves as a general term to cover a group of theories that work to explain processes of attribution. It is theorized that as the individual perceives events, he makes a causal inference, or conclusion, about why an event might occur. For example, a worker might make an inference about why a coworker has succeeded on a specific task, or he could make inferences as to how his own behavior influences a subordinate. Over time, his inferences turn into expectations or beliefs, allowing him to predict reactions and understand the events he experiences and observes.

History

Fritz Heider was the first psychologist to propose a theory involving attribution and the psychology of interpersonal relations in 1958. The various theories of attribution have been further developed by other psychologists, including Bernard Weiner and Harold Kelley.

Types

Three main categories of attribution theory exist, the first being explanatory attribution. Individuals attempt to make sense of the world and look for explanations to help understand why a particular event has happened. Predictive attribution is used when an individual attempts to understand why an event happened, but also wants to be able to make it happen again or prevent it from happening. The third type, interpersonal attribution, usually happens between two or more people. It involves an individual presenting himself in a positive light when explaining something or representing himself to others.

Performance

As part of their job duties, managers must observe the performance of their employees and make related judgments. For a poorly performing employee, management must attribute the poor performance to something. If poor performance is attributed to a lack of effort, the employee will most likely suffer a negative outcome. Conversely, if the manager attributes the employee’s poor performance to a lack of skill, she may recommend training or mentoring. Another example is employee motivation. When employees attribute their work success to factors controlled by someone or something else instead of themselves, they may not be willing to try new tasks and could lose the motivation to maintain a high standard of quality in their regular job duties.

Job Burnout

Many people perceive job burnout causes to be multifaceted, and the degree to which they find something or someone to attribute the cause to or "blame" enormously affects the decisions they make about how to deal with the situation. Workers usually perceive job burnout negatively, and typically attribute the causes for it in three general ways: whether the cause is external to them or internal, whether the cause remains constant over time, and how much control they have over the cause. The more an employee attributes the causes of job burnout to temporary events that he has a large degree of control over, the better he will cope with and recover from the job burnout.

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