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Role of Attribution Theory in Explaining Employee Behaviour

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Achieving high organizational performance is an important goal for a manager, as stated by Andersson and Bateman (1997), the reputation of an organization is intimately linked with its leaders. Employees' perceptions of fellow employees and supervisors’ behaviors as well as their environment may contribute to job neglect. Attribution theory may help in establishing the reason behind employee behavior as well as whether external or internal factors are causing such behavior (Oghojafor, 2011). Initially, Heider (1958) identified three attribution errors, fundamental attribution error, actor-observer effect, and self-serving bias, all of which provide potential causes for job neglect. Additionally, the covariation model be applied when an individual observes various occurrences of the same behavior or situation. The covariation model attributes three forms of information, distinctiveness, consistency, and consensus in determining whether an individual is influenced by external or internal attributes. Furthermore, in understanding employees’ perceptions, managers gain an insight into the motivation behind employee job neglect, and in turn, provide solutions.

Factors that may impact organizational performance derive from external influences such as customer satisfaction, and internal influences such as the workforce (Waggoner 1999). Chandrasekar (2011) asserts that for a manager, internal influences of a business are highly significant, as they contribute majorly to the level of performance of an organization Environment of the workplace is a significant factor impacting employees' motivation to work and overall productivity (Chandrasekar (2011). The growth in the attention of employees has formed an environment “where the business needs its employees more than the employees need the business” (Ajala 2012, 141). Furthermore, how an employee perceives their environment can determine their level of tenacity in performing assigned tasks. Some perceptual biases may cause exit or neglect in the workplace, which can be detrimental to increasing organizational performance.

According to Bell (2008), perception is empirical and based on an individual’s previous experience. Perceptions are formed based on information collected from “sensory stimuli, and from insight, intuition, and knowledge regarding those stimuli” (Bell 2008, p. 36). After this information is collected, the individual processes the information and forms their own interpretation of their environment (Bell, 2008). As a result, individuals will perceive their environment in various ways that are different from other individuals due to their contrasting backgrounds, cultures, and personal experiences (Bell, 2008).

Attribution theory assists in determining reasons behind why employees may display exit or neglect. First conceptualized by Heider in 1958, attribution theory studies why incidents occur, more specifically, how an individual’s perceived judgments for their previous achievements and failures have impacted their current and future success and motivation (Oghojafor, et al, 2011). Heider (1958) explains that behavior can be assigned predominantly to the person or to the environment, meaning behavior can be rationalized through reasonably stable traits of the personality, motivation, and ability, or by environmental factors, such as the difficulty of job tasks. These internal and external attributions people make are described as the ‘locus of causality’ (Hewett, Shantz, Mundy, & Alfes, 2017). The information provided by the locus of causality helps managers determine the cause of events and the motivation behind employees’ actions. Therefore, an employee may exhibit neglect, or even exit, if they lack motivation or the ability to complete a task or if the task assigned to them was too difficult for them to complete.

Another factor of Heider’s attribution theory is the identification of specific errors of attribution, fundamental attribution error, actor-observer effect, and self-serving bias (Hewett, et al, 2017). The fundamental attribution error occurs when an individual overestimate the role of internal factors in influencing the behavior of others and underestimates external or environmental factors (Forgas, 1998). If an employee is frequently punished for failing a task solely due to their personal attributes when the primary problem is due to a tragedy that occurred in the employee’s life, the employee may become reluctant to work, thus causing neglect. The actor-observer effect occurs when individuals attribute internal causes to situational causes, for example, ‘I did not get the job because the manager is unfair’, whereas observers attribute the behavior of others to internal causes, for example ‘she did not receive the job because her skills are inadequate’ (Robins, Mendelsohn & Spranca, 1996). This may be a result of a lack of communication between managers and subordinates, thus causing employees to obtain a distorted perception of their workplace. Moreover, self-serving bias occurs when an individual acknowledges their positive achievements as an internal attribution and holds external and uncontrollable attributes responsible for their failures (Bradley, 1978). By doing so, an employee may become falsely complacent and lack accountability, generating a dishonest work environment and a poor employee/employer relationship.

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Furthermore, Kelley (1973) develops Heider’s attribution theory by claiming that an individual should apply a covariation principle when they are exposed to various occurrences of the same behavior or situation (Hewett, et al, 2017). The covariation principle is when “an effect is attributed to one of its possible causes with which, over time, it covaries” (Kelley 1973, p. 10). For instance, if an employee is unable to complete a task, a manager may try to recognize possible causes for their behavior, then using information available to them, they attribute the effect to the most probable cause (Hewett, et al, 2017). Kelley (1973) provides three forms of information within the covariation principle that determines whether an individual is influenced by external or internal attributes.

The first form used in determining the attributions of behavior is distinctiveness. Distinctiveness compares how an individual behaves in a certain situation to how he behaves across other situations (Hesketh,1984). If the employee who cannot complete a task also failed to complete tasks in his previous job, then there is a low distinctiveness (Hesketh, 1984). Subsequently, a manager may observe the behavior as an internal attribution that the employee is generally lazy or incapable of doing the job (Hewett, et al, 2017). If the employee is usually a hard-working individual who previously completed set tasks on time, then there is a high distinctiveness and the manager recognizes that there is an external attribution to explain their behavior (Hesketh, 1984). Distinctiveness can be used to identify whether there are situational factors prompting neglect or job dissatisfaction among employees. Once the factors are identified, the manager can pursue strategies on how to manage employee neglect. For example, if the employee is struggling to complete the task due to a lack of skills and difficulty of the task the manager may assign the task to another employee or assist them with what they are struggling with (Hesketh, 1984).

The second form is consistency, which concerns the regularity of an individual’s behavior across time and situations (Hesketh, 1984). If the employee is persistently lazy and careless in all situations, they would represent a high consistency for not completing job tasks. On the contrary, if an employee was generally diligent in their work but becomes neglectful only when working on the assigned task, they exhibit a low consistency for not completing job tasks (Hewett, et al, 2017). When an employee displays low consistency, a manager may associate their behavior with environmental factors, such as the difficulty of tasks or inabilities (Hesketh, 1984). Once again, a manager can use this information to determine if there are any external factors contributing to an employee becoming neglectful in completing tasks.

The third form is consensus, which arises when an individual’s behavior corresponds with other individuals’ behavior in response to the same stimuli (Kelley, 1973). This means that if other employees with a more suited skill set or higher expertise also failed to complete the task, then there is a high consensus of failing the task, which means there are potential situational factors (Hewett, et al, 2017). However, if the other employees completed the task with ease, there is low consensus and the employee’s failure to complete the task derives from internal factors or personal/intellectual inabilities (Hesketh, 1984). Managers may attribute consensus to possible causes of neglect or exit if more than one employee is struggling on a specific task or if there are numerous employees quitting. Thereafter the manager can reassess the difficulty of the task or provide improved instructions on how to complete it.

A consequence of attributions or the negative impact of observing and explaining the behavior of an employee is that managers begin to trust them less (Alony, 2014). According to Alony (2014), an employee who is monitored regularly is trusted less than another employee who performs at the same level, since the manager monitoring them is more aware of their behavior. This line of reasoning implies that a manager assigning internal attributions to an employee’s behavior will tend to perceive their errors as their own fault and trust them even less (Alony, 2014). However, by being aware of certain high or low attributions, managers can assess performance levels and respond accordingly. Managing and understanding perceptions of employees and why they behaved in the way they did allows managers to predict certain behavioral outcomes. This also helps managers generate positive behavior, which according to Karimi, Gilbreath, Kim, and Grawith (2012) corresponds with low levels of job neglect in employees.

In conclusion, attribution theory is a useful tool in explaining employee behavior. Managers may also apply the covariation principle to employee behavior to respond to certain behaviors accordingly. However, by closely monitoring employee behavior, managers may lose trust in them and cause the opposite effect, therefore it is important for managers to be aware of potential causes for job neglect as well as be aware of their own perceptual biases. Nevertheless, by understanding whether employees’ perceptions are influenced by internal or external factors, managers can prevent or reduce neglectful behavior.

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Role of Attribution Theory in Explaining Employee Behaviour. (2023, July 11). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
“Role of Attribution Theory in Explaining Employee Behaviour.” Edubirdie, 11 Jul. 2023,
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