Attribution Theory and Collaboration

Bernard Weiner established “attribution theory” in 1985 as a framework of making sense of individuals responses to group dynamics and group output.

Weiner asked participants of group work to account for the success or failure of the group, and following are four examples of the kinds of statements individuals made about their group, which I think will express familiar sentiments to most who have participated in group work of some kind.

(a) “In the end it’s not surprising that the group didn’t succeed in the project, as some members of the team, and one in particular, wasn’t engaged or interested in the project and contributed very little, and another didn’t seem to understand a lot of what the work entailed.  It also didn’t help that the timeline and budget were naively small.

(b) “I recognised early on in the project that we would need more expertise, and decided that ‘BlueField’ would be an ideal provider for the professional support we would require, and in the end, this proved invaluable.

(c) “I wish I had known at the beginning of the project that attracting sponsorship would have taken as long as it did, I feel that really set us back and cost us a lot of time we really needed toward the end.  It was also unfortunate that Jane’s home-life became so tumultuous as it really directed away a lot of her time and energy that could have made a big difference.

Weiner focused on what kinds of reasons the participants attributed (which he called ‘attributions’) that they felt were most responsible for the success or failure of the group-work.  He identified three primary categories of attribution;

(i) Internal/ External; the attribution was something inherent to the participant, or something outside of them.

(ii) Fixed/ Mutable; the attribution was something that is permanent and unchanging, or something liable to change.

 (iii) Controllable/ Determined; the attribution was within the control of someone, the participant or other, or outside of the control of anyone in the group.

A statement like (a) exhibits the ‘external’ (the cause was outside of the speaker), ‘fixed’ (though the speaker is being polite, the insinuation is that one colleague was lazy, and another stupid, which are more or less permanent properties of those people, and hence not likely to change) and ‘uncontrollable’ (the budget and timeline are outside of the control of all participants).

Conversely, a successful project tended to produce statements like (b) wherein the attributions are ‘internal’ (the reasons are properties or characteristics in the participant, in this case their astuteness and proactive decision-making skills), ‘controllable’ (it was within their power to identify a need and subsequently to proactively take steps in hiring BlueField), and ‘mutable’ (it could have gone either way, but it went positively because of their intervention).

Most commonly, the a successful outcome is allocated ‘internal, controllable, and mutable’ whereas failure tends to be given ‘external, uncontrollable and fixed’ attributions, however, which attributions are chosen is within the control of the participant.  That is, they can choose the path of attributions they ascribe to the groups failure of success.   

Statement (c) is an example of this.  We can imagine that the statement is referring to a failed project but here the participant has elected to take responsibility for the failure, or at least a share of it, and uses an internal attribution (they talk about how they did not time manage, due to their lack of knowledge).  This attribution however is controllable; the next time around they will be able to do things differently; they can change (and seemingly already have) the state of not-knowing to one of knowing.

Lastly, while it appears that speaker (c) is blaming another participant, it is a very different kind of attribution to that of speaker (a).  Speaker (a) blamed other people for ‘who they were’, for ‘fixed’, or ‘permanent’ characteristics of that person.  Speaker (c), on the other hand, has attributed the failure in part to another participants circumstance which is likely or possible to change, and hence ‘mutable’.

It is important to note here that speaker (a) and speaker (c) could well be speaking about the same person.

The real power of Weiner’s work is that he was able to show a distinct and significant positive correlation between participants who employed ‘internal’, ‘mutable’ and ‘controllable’ attributions to describe their groups outcomes, and those participants most likely to succeed in future projects.

What struck me as particularly relevant in Weiner’s work was that at no point did he even engage with the concept of ‘actual’ reasons.  I have yet to read anywhere in his work where he even begins to consider whether the attributions the participants of his attention used were reasonably correlated to reality or not.

I found myself wanting to know; ‘was the budget was too small?’ or ‘was it really because a participant was disruptive or boorish?’.  The point that I suspect Weiner was making with this omission was that whether the attributions were ‘true’ or ‘real’ is not a meaningful consideration.

This, I feel, is significant.

There is an inclination in all of us to ascribe blame (what we might call ‘negatively attribute’) to others and to our circumstances, but where these aren’t idle personal judgments, or superficial escapes of self-reflection, they are useless and according to Weiner’s research, quite literally self-defeating subjective positions to adopt.

That the participants have agency over how they ascribe their attributions is the key takeaway, and this is independent of the circumstance.  Was the budget too small, or the scope agreed upon with respect to the budget too large?  Was a participant non-contributive or did the group fail to address gaps in participants’ knowledge?  Was effort put into creating a culture wherein it was safe to ask questions, and was such a value discussed?

To believe that our perspective is the perspective which encapsulates objective truth is the pinnacle of subjective conceit.

What I take from Weiner’s work is that the success and failure of a group hinges heavily on our ability to recognise this.

 

Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Weiner, B (1985). “An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion”. Psychological Review. 92 (4): 548–573. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.92.4.548.

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