Attribution Theory of Leadership

What is the first thing you see when you walk into a room? Or what is the first thing you notice when you start a conversation with someone? All of us tend to make assumptions based on the things that we see. A room that is filled with dirty close all over the floor and unwashed dishes creates an assumption that the person who lives there is lazy. If someone doesn’t make eye contact during a conversation, a common assumption is to believe that the person is not paying attention to what we are saying.

Leaders draw conclusions from their assumptions very regularly. This is what is called the attribution theory of leadership.

Why Do Me Make Such Attributions on a Regular Basis?

When information is the greatest currency that a society has, then there is a need to find information in everything that we observed. Employees will observe how a leader works and behaves and then attribute specific information based on what they see. Leaders will do the same based on what they say from others around them. These observations lead to opinions about the person.

The problem with the attribution theory of leadership is that it often relies on first impressions. If someone is having a bad day and is suffering from a migraine, for example, they are not to be as productive as they would be if they were 100% healthy. A leader may not observe that there is distress going on within this employee and their first impression become a negative one. That negative opinion is something that may never be disassociated in the leaders mind.

Although sometimes accurate, or issue of the attribution theory of leadership is that it can present information as fact when it is really not fact that all. It encourages a false sense of security because there may be an improper picture of what is really going on with the team or with a leader. It all depends on one person’s personal perspective.

Observation Then Translates Into Personal Behavior

We like to talk a lot about how we should judge ourselves based on our own perceptions and not how others see us, but attribution theory turns that theory around. We must be concerned about how we are perceived because those perceptions turned into facts. Once an assumption becomes the fact, it becomes truth. That’s why making a good first impression and and then continuing to make good impressions is so important under this theory.

Our personal behavior is directly linked to the things that we see. If someone looks like they are disgusted with our appearance, we will work hard to determine what has caused that negative impression and then fix it.

If we see a positive reaction, then we will work hard to replicate those circumstances so that continuous positive attributions are assigned to us.

The attribution theory of leadership helps us understand human behavior. It is dangerous to make assumptions because the only person that we can truly understand is ourselves. Our observations are information, but not information that we can draw reasonable conclusions from in most circumstances. By remembering this, anyone can become a great leader by using all of the information that is around them.

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