The role of attribution theory in explaining behaviour at work

Attribution theory

Attribution theory attempts to explain how people explain phenomena based on cause and effect and how this influences motivation. The theory is important because it enables employees in an organization to understand and explain their thinking about their behaviors. Employers can also use the theory to understand causes of some of their employees’ behavior. The conscious understanding of the causes of behavior changes not only the actions of employees and employers but also their judgment. Scientifically, attributes can be classified into, explanatory, predictive and interpersonal tributes. This means that attributes are used by people to explain their surrounding and understand it better and to interpret the behaviors of other people. This paper is meant to discuss the role of attribution theory in explaining the behavior at work.

According to the theory, behavior attribution is a three-way process. The first step in attributing behavior is observing or perceiving a behavior whether it is one’s behavior or someone’s. The second stage is determining whether the behavior perceived or observed is intentional. Attribution of the observed or perceived behavior is the last step in behavior attribution. According to Heider (2013), people tend to act like scientists when in social institutions and can discover the causes of behaviors of other people. He believed that there existed three types of causal information that influenced people’s judgment; attributions, both internal and external, distinctiveness or consistency and consensus, (Kelley, 1967).

Internal attribution is the assigning of the cause of behavior to internal causes and not outside causes. People tend to assign internal attributes while explaining the behaviors of other people. For example, when attributing to a poor performance of a colleague in work, one will tend to attribute to carelessness and lack of skills of the colleague for the poor performance. External attribution, on the other hand, is the assigning of external causes that are not controllable to the behaviors of the person. When attributing to their practice, people tend to point to external forces, (McLeod, 2010). For example, when a person performs poorly in his line of duty he will point to external causes like poor working conditions for his poor performance.

Ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck are the most important that affect attribution. Attributions are classified into the locus of control, stability, and controllability. This is according to Weiner’s attribution theory based on achievement. The locus of control dimension involves external or internal locus of control (1974). The stability dimension looks at whether the causes change with time. For example, the effort can be seen as unstable and ability stable. Locus of control checks on whether the causes are controllable. For instance, skills can be controlled while luck cannot be controlled.

When attributing behaviors, the consistency or distinctively of the behavior and consensus are also taken into consideration. Behavior is said to be consistent when under similar conditions the behavior is repeated and again by an individual. The consistency is moderate when the individual behave in different manners in similar situations and high when the individual behaves the same ways in similar circumstances. Behavior is said to be distinctive when a person behaves the same way in different situations. The distinctive is high if the behavior is the same under different situations and high if the behaviors are different in different situations. Consensus, on the other hand, is low when other people behave differently under the same conditions as the person under observation. When other people behave the same way as the person under observation in similar conditions, the consistency is high.

According to conversation theory, which is a development of the attribution theory, the effect can vary in different situations and co-varies over time and behavior. According to Kelley (1967), the behavior of a person is determined by three factors, the person, the action and the context. Whether attributed to the person, the entity or the circumstances, an effect depends on the causes the effect co-varies with. This, therefore, means that factors that are present when behaviors are the ones used in attribution.

Attributions are also influenced by bias and errors in the workplace. This error occurs in times where people tend to exaggerate internal factors’ importance or by explaining behavior through personalities and characters of other people (Heider, 2013). Attribution bias is when assumptions are made about other people’s behavior without having all the data needed for accuracy. There are two types of bias errors which include self-serving bias and fundamental attribution bias. Self-serving bias is whereby individual attribute positive behaviors to internal factors. These internal factors include characters and negative behaviors to external factors not within their control, for instance in a cycling test, if for the first time the person under observation does it well, he will attribute his success to internal factors such as the skills he has. Surprisingly when he does it for another time, but this time he does not perform well, he will attribute his failure to external factors like unfavorable weather or the poor conditions of the roads.

Fundamental attribution error, on the other hand, is whereby a person assigns a blame or a cause of a certain behavior to the person himself and not external factors; the individual is even blamed for factors that might have even been eternal beyond the person’s control. Interestingly, attribution is related to gender. Women tend to attribute their success to help they receive externally and hard work and interpret their failure as a lack of ability result, (Zuckerman, 1979). Men, on the other hand, attribute failure to bad treatment and application of insufficient efforts.

In conclusion, it is normal for individuals to look out for explanations that can be attributed to not only behaviors but also success and failure. People tend to judge other people’s behavior. In a working environment, it is better for both the employees and employers to understand the causes of behaviors among themselves. This approach changes the actions and judgment in the working environments. The managers at work also need to know how behaviors vary with gender and they can understand both genders’ causes of behavior.





McLeod, S. A. (2010). Attribution theory. Retrieved from

Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In Nebraska symposium on motivation. University of Nebraska Press.

Heider, F. (2013). The psychology of interpersonal relations. Psychology Press.

  1. A. (2010). Attribution theory. Retrieved from

Weiner, B. (Ed.). (1974). Achievement motivation and attribution theory. General Learning Press.

Zuckerman, M. (1979). Attribution of success and failure revisited, or: The motivational bias is alive and well in attribution theory. Journal of personality47(2), 245-287.