Attribution Theory of Leadership

Attribution Theory of Leadership

The attribution theory of leadership deals with the formation of individual opinions about the reasons for particular events or observations. People will always try to understand why people do what they do. The leader will make a judgment about his employees based on his attribution of the causes of the employees' performance. Individuals will also make inferences about the leader and react to poor performance by the leader.

Attribution theory is attributed to the work done by Heider (1958), Jones and Davis (1965), and Kelley (1967, 1972, 1973). Attribution became an active area of organizational behavior research in the 1980s. It is a model of leadership evaluation that assumes that individuals make inferences about leadership ability by observing and interpreting certain environmental and behavioral cues. Attribution theory is best understood through an example. If you relate well with someone, you’re more likely to evaluate that person’s performance favorably; however on the other side, if someone else constantly irritates you the wrong way, you may be more inclined to evaluate that person’s performance punitively.

Attribution Theory:

People try to identify the reasons for observed events by collecting information that can help explain them. People constantly try to form chains of cause and effect explanations for observed incidents and experiences. These attributions by humans help them to assign an order to the world around them and increase their ability to understand the behavior of self and others.

Attribution Theory deals with the:

  • Formation of individual opinions about the reasons for particular events or observations.
  • Formation of opinions about the behavior of other people
  • Formation of opinions about oneself
  • How individuals explain  their  own successes and failures
  • How individuals explain the behaviors and outcomes of others
  • Whether the cause of the behavior is a characteristic of the follower (an internal attribute)
  • Whether the cause of the behavior is a characteristic of the situation (an external attribute)
  • Whether a follower's behavior is likely to remain constant (stable)
  • Whether a follower's behavior is likely to change over time (unstable)

Attribution theory describes how individuals develop causal explanations for behaviors and outcomes,  and how their causal explanations influence subsequent reactions. People see behavior as being caused either by the individual (i.e. dispositional) or by the environment (situational). It makes a distinction between internal and external causes.

Attribution Theory of Leadership:

It is a model of leadership evaluation that assumes that individuals make inferences about leadership ability by observing and interpreting certain environmental and behavioral cues. A two-step attributional model of leadership was proposed by Green and Mitchell (1979) suggesting that leaders make attributions (try to understand) about the cause of the performance before deciding on the appropriate action to take. A leader attributes various factor(s) for a follower's performance (internal, external, stable, unstable). These ascribed attributions influence leader's expectations for future performance as well as his behavior toward the follower.

The attribution model suggests that leaders observe their followers’ behavior, make inferences about the causes of that behavior (i.e., whether it is the result of internal, personal factors or of external, circumstantial ones), and then respond on the basis of those inferences. Attribution is the name given to this subjective process, in that we attribute causes, results, problems, and so on, to others, often with less than adequate information on which to base our judgment.

Attribution Theory of Leadership

Internal Factors Influencing Behavior

Internal attributions include follower’s lack of interest,  inexperienced followers,  absenteeism by followers,  or any other cause due to follower’s side.

If a  leader attributes a  follower's poor performance to internal factors such as low effort or a lack of ability, he or she may reprimand,  dismiss, or provide training for the employee concerned.  If a manager attributes an employee's poor performance to a lack of effort, then it will impact employees' performance appraisal poorly.

External Factors Influencing Behavior

External causes include, poor  performance  mainly  due  to  machines  break down, tool break  down,  material inventory problem, material  quality  problem,  or  any  other  cause  by external  factors,  which  are  beyond the control  of followers

If, however,  poor performance is attributed to external factors such as a  lack of material,  or to work overload,  the leader would need to concentrate on these factors and improve the situation instead of giving negative feedback to the employee. If a manager perceives that an employee's poor performance is due to a lack of skill, the manager may most likely assign the employee to required training or provide some assistance in terms of instructions or coaching.

Corrective Action by Leader

The leader will take corrective action:

  • Towards the situation, if he attributes performance problems to external causal factors
  • Towards follower when he attributes the performance problem to internal factors

For example, a manager who makes an internal attribution by concluding that an employee’s poor performance on a recent project was due to personal characteristics that led to lack of motivation, he is likely to decide on a harsher disciplinary action. Corrective action is more likely to be punitive in nature when attributed to lack of effort

However if he made an external attribution by assigning the reason of poor performance to the situation like a lockout situation say due to corona pandemic, the person was not able to visit clients and hence the decline in sales volume, the corrective action by the manager will be targeted towards remedying the situation.

Applicability to Organizations/Leadership

Attributions are critical to management because managers' and employees' judgments and actions are often based on perceived causes of behavior. Given below are some implications for organizations:

  • Influence perception about employees based on observed performance and derived attributions to causes
  • Managers will make a performance-related judgment based on observed behavior and attributions
  • Inaccurate judgment about the causes of poor performance can have negative repercussions for the organization
  • Attributions may influence employee motivation both positively and negatively
  • Understanding attributions can improve managerial effectiveness

What is the attribution theory of leadership?

Attribution theory of leadership assumes that individuals make inferences about leadership ability by observing and interpreting certain environmental and behavioral cues. Leaders make attributions (try to understand) about the cause of the performance before deciding on the appropriate action to take. A leader attributes various factor(s) for a follower's performance (internal, external, stable, unstable). These ascribed attributions influence leader's expectations for future performance as well as his behavior toward the follower.

What is an example of attribution theory?

An example of attribution theory could be a manager who makes an internal attribution by concluding that an employee’s poor performance on a recent project was due to personal characteristics that led to a lack of motivation. Once he makes such a judgment, he is likely to decide on a harsher disciplinary action. In this case, the corrective action is more likely to be punitive in nature as it has been attributed by the manager to lack of effort.

What is an example of an external attribution?

An example of a manager making an external attribution is when he assumes that the poor performance of the employee is due to external situations. For example, due to lockdown situation created by corona pandemic, the employee was not able to visit clients to make sales calls, and hence there was an observed decline in sales volume. In this case, the manager has assigned the cause to external attribution and the corrective action by the manager will be targeted towards remedying the situation either by lowering his targets or looking for virtual sales opportunities.

What does the attribution theory mean?

Attributions theory means a lot for management because it establishes that managers' and employees' judgments and actions are often based on perceived causes of behavior. Managers make perceptions about employees based on observed performance and derived attributions to causes. Managers will eventually make a performance-related judgment based on observed behavior and attributions. These decisions based on attributions may influence employee motivation both positively and negatively and hence understanding attributions can improve managerial effectiveness.



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