How do you respond when something negative happens to you at work? What explanation do you give it? What meaning do you attribute to it? Psychologists think that we all have pretty stable “attributional styles” that come into play when we are confronted with a negative situation. Some of us will consistently bring a positive attributional style to bear to explain a negative event – others of us are more likely to use a negative attributional style. Unsurprisingly, if we use a negative attributional style, we are more likely to try ineffective strategies to fix the situation.
What is an attributional style?
Your attributional style is the way you explain a negative event to yourself. The way you think about why a bad thing has happened to you. The conclusions you draw from a negative event: the meaning you attribute to it.
For example, say you fail a maths test at school. If you have a positive attributional style you might say something like: “This was an unusually hard test. I didn’t study well for this one. I was unusually tired on the day. I’ll just make sure that next time I’ll study a bit more and get a better night’s sleep before the test.”
But if you have a negative attributional style, you’re more likely to say something like: “I’m bad at maths. This result shows what a bad student I am. Nothing is going to change. And it means I’m bad at other hard subjects as well. I’m not going to do well at school.”
How do I know if I have a negative attributional style?
You have a negative attributional style if, when confronted with a negative event, you explain that event in a way that makes it:
- Stable, and
Let’s look at each in turn.
You have a negative attributional style if you think a negative event has happened to you because of something inside you. Something internal.
For example, “I failed the maths test because I am no good at maths”. (Thinking you’re no good at maths is an internal reason to explain the failure.)
A more positive attributional style would make the reason external: “I failed the maths test because it was a hard one.” (In this way you have made the failure a reason outside of yourself – it’s the test, not you).
You’re attributional style is negative if you think that the negative event that just happened to you will keep happening to you and won’t change. That is, the negative event is stable. For example, “I failed the maths test because that’s what always happens.” Or, “This failure means that I am going to keep having trouble with maths tests.”
A more positive response to a negative event would be to see it as temporary or as changeable. For example, “I failed this test, but if I work hard for the next one I can do better.”
The final element of a negative attributional style is to make negative events “global” in their significance – rather than confined to the local event itself. For example: “This just shows how bad I am at exams. I am never going to do well at school.” You have drawn conclusions from one test and applied them to all subjects and to your whole school career. You have globalised the negative result.
A more positive response to this negative event would be to “localise” it as much as possible: “I failed this test, because this test was hard.”
What impact does this have on your effectiveness at work?
Unsurprisingly, if you have a negative attributional style, it’s going to affect you at work. But how exactly?
In a 2006 study with 190 nurses at a Veteran’s Affairs Medical Centre, Jennifer Welbourne and colleagues found that your attributional style will predict how you approach problems – and whether you adopt constructive ways to solve problems or ineffective ways to tackle them. They found that:
“… the more positive one’s occupational attributional style, the more likely one is to use problem solving and positive cognitive restructuring strategies and the less likely one is to use avoidance strategies to deal with workplace stress.”
In other words, if you have a positive attributional style, you’re more likely to use active problem solving techniques to change them. Nurses with this style reported approaches such as:
- “I take action to try to make the situation better”
- “I try to come up with a strategy about what to do”
Additionally, if you have a positive attributional style, you’re more likely to reframe the negative event in more helpful ways:
- “I try to see it in a different light, to make it seem more positive”
- “I look for something good in what is happening”
On the other hand, Welbourne and her colleagues found that if you have a more negative attributional style you are more likely to engage in unhelpful responses to negative events, such as avoidance strategies:
- “I give up trying to deal with it”
- “I say to myself “this isn’t real””
In other words, your attributional style at work will not only affect how you feel about things, but it will also affect what you do about things.
Can you change your attributional style?
Fortunately, it is possible to change your attributional style. This is not a fixed, determined, piece of who you are. You are able to change it.
The first step is awareness. As Dr Sandra Sanger says:
“Focusing your awareness on the explanations that you make for the things that happen around you, to you, and by your own agency allows you to shed light on some of the ways your characteristic ways of thinking – your attributional style – might be working against you.”
Of course, it can’t stop there. Dr Sanger goes on to say:
“To really change your attributions, you need to engage in the daily practice of choosing alternate attributions for events. If you tend to believe that you made it past a first date because your prospective partner is generous to a fault and perhaps half-blind, you need to work on teasing out the attractive qualities you displayed during that first encounter that brought the other person back for more. If you bemoan the fact that you were rejected for yet another job interview because you believe that your resume is less developed than Paris Hilton’s, it would behoove you to take another look at the state of the economy.”
One of the best ways to counter the influence of negative ways of seeing the world is to use the techniques of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). And it’s best to do that with a qualified professional, particularly if you are experiencing mental health issues (as one in five of us do every year) such as depression and anxiety.
I’ve also come across an interesting study by Judith Proudfoot and colleagues showing that a sales agent’s attributional style can be significantly improved over just a seven week CBT training program. This study would seem to show direct evidence for attributional styles being changeable.
1. Work on your awareness this week
So this week, try thinking about how you are explaining negative events. Are you seeing the causes as resulting from a deficiency inside you (internal), that’s not going to change (stable), and that affects large parts of your life (global)? If so, try to challenge that view. Look for evidence that that’s not the case. Try to reframe the event and see it as external, changeable and localised in its effects.
2. Listen to the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast
3. Subscribe to this blog
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