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Many times we make assumptions about individuals by what we observe.

How they think, act or talk enables us to make a decision in our own minds as to why they are acting that way. That is the basis of the attribution theory of leadership.

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What We See

You walk into a room and someone yells at you for being late. As you are talking to a person, they seem to not care about what you’re saying.

Someone that you know seems to be very quiet today and is not as talkative as he usually is. What do all these have in common? Well, when you heard the descriptions of how the people were acting, you began to make an assumption as to why they were acting that way.This perspective is the foundation of the attribution theory of leadership. The attribution theory of leadership believes that individuals interpret events or happenings around them and this relates to their thinking and behavior.

Attribution Theory Explained

At its very core, attribution theory believes that people will try to understand why people do what they do.

Taking that perspective and applying it to leadership, we find that employees will interpret the abilities of a leader by observing how that leader behaves. Conversely, a leader that exhibits the attribution theory of leadership will do the same. The leader will try to understand why the employees do what they do and will develop that opinion by seeing the employee in the work environment.The good aspect of this is the leader can see a person who does great work and thus develop an opinion of the person from that, or if that same person has a bad day, the leader could develop an opinion from that as well.

The impact of this on organizational behavior is fairly evident. We have leaders in an organization that will form their opinions of employees based on what they see, and the employees will do the same about the leader. We can all agree that sometimes what we see is not what we get, and thus, this aspect of leadership can have a negative impact on an organization.In many ways, it can develop into a false sense of security or an improper picture of what the organization really has within its walls. This can happen by how the attribution is applied to the person or situation.

Internal and External Views

When we discuss internal attribution, the thought process is that the person is behaving the way they are because of the person’s attitude or character.

Conversely, when external attribution is used, we view the person’s behavior and believe it is due to something about the situation the person is in. As you can see, both of these are assumptions, and they could be correct or incorrect.However, if we think back to the comments I made when I introduced this lesson, we all thought the people were acting a certain way from the perspective of either something inside of them or something about the situation or their day that made them act that way. Thus, attribution theory attributes behavior to something and is driven by visual cues we pick up when interacting with that person.

Lesson Summary

If we can agree that the attribution theory of leadership believes that individuals interpret events or happenings around them and this relates to their thinking and behavior, then we can see that there could be issues with a leader who deploys this theory. It is based on perspective and assumptions.

While they could indeed be correct, they could also be incorrect. Thus, this theory relies on intuition and experience to make the correct assumptions.

Learning Outcomes

After reviewing this lesson, you’ll have the ability to:

  • Describe the attribution theory of leadership and its potential for negative consequences
  • Differentiate between internal and external attribution

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