Attribution Theory

AuthorMarcia Simmering

Page 22

Attribution theory is intended to help a person understand the causes of human behavior, be it their own or someone else's. The basis of attribution theory is that people want to know the reasons for the actions

Page 23

that they and others take; they want to attribute causes to behaviors they see rather than assuming that these behaviors are random. This allows people to assume some feeling of control over their own behaviors and over situations. Psychologist Fritz Heider (1896–1988) first developed attribution theory in his 1958 book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. Heider proposed that what people perceived and believed about what they saw dictated how they would act, even if their beliefs about what they perceived were invalid.

Heider's proposed theory of attribution was further developed by psychologist Bernard Weiner and colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s, and this new theoretical framework has been used primarily in current attribution research. A final development to attribution theory was provided by psychologist Harold Kelley, who examined how consistency, distinctiveness, and consensus could be used by individuals to establish the validity of their perceptions.

Attributions are critical to management because perceived causes of behavior may influence managers' and employees' judgments and actions. For instance, managers must often observe employee performance and make related judgments. If a manager attributes an employee's poor performance to a lack of effort, then the outcome is likely to be negative for that employee; he or she may receive a poor performance appraisal rating or even be terminated from the job. Conversely, if a manager perceives that an employee's poor performance is due to a lack of skill, the manager may assign the employee to further training or provide more instruction or coaching. Making an inaccurate judgment about the causes of poor performance can have negative repercussions for the organization.

Attributions also may influence employee motivation. Employees who perceive the cause of their success to be outside of their control may be reluctant to attempt new tasks and may lose motivation to perform well in the workplace. Conversely, employees who attribute their success to themselves are more likely to have high motivation for work. Thus, understanding attributions that people make can have a strong effect on both employee performance and managerial effectiveness.


Attribution is considered to be a three-stage process. First, the behavior of an individual must be observed. Second, the perceiver must determine that the behavior they have observed is deliberate. That is, the person being observed is believed to have behaved intentionally. Finally, the observer attributes the observed behavior...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT