How your “attributional style” determines your effectiveness at work

Nick IngramThinking6 Comments

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:

  • Internal,
  • Stable, and
  • Global.

Let’s look at each in turn.

1. Internal

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).

2. Stable

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.”

3. Global

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.

What now?

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

And check out the You Are Not So Smart website. I was inspired to write this post, and referred to the Jennifer Welbourne paper, by Episode 52 of the fantastic You Are Not So Smart podcast.

3. Subscribe to this blog

And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this blog. I will be writing more on this in the weeks to come. You can click on the “Subscribe” button in the top right of the screen. I blog once a week, so your inbox won’t be overwhelmed!

6 Comments on “How your “attributional style” determines your effectiveness at work”

  1. Thanks for this Nick, it is a really useful thing to draw attention to. The one thing I am puzzling with is the ‘negative’ label for events. Puzzling, because I wouldn’t want to paint everything with a rose-coloured gloss – in normal human experience, yes, doing poorly at the maths exam, losing your job, losing a relationship and so on – these are hard to but see as ‘negative’. But I’m holding that in tension with a perspective that might be useful in changing our ‘attribution’ of events: that of improvisational theatre.
    The improvisers impulse at each moment is to say ‘Yes, and what can I make from this?’ Imagine an improvised scene between person A and person B: person A gives their partner a line that takes the scene off the track, derailing the momentum it had been building. In some eyes, a ‘negative’ contribution. But to person B it is a gift, provoking the scene to move in a new and surprising direction, to a theme never before explored.
    The thing is that to the improviser, any ‘event’ is not a monumental presence, full of meaning, but rather a launching pad into the ever moving future. The past is not settled until the future gives it meaning.
    What it might add to the thinking about attribution is to not focus on negative events as inert lumps of reality, but as provocations to make the future: ‘Ok, yes, that happened, now what can I make from it?’

    1. Nick Ingram

      Thanks Tony – improv theatre is a great way of thinking about things. It shifts you from being a “reader” to being an “author” (as we used to say!).
      I love “the past is not settled until the future gives it meaning”.
      (It reminds me of the This American Life ep where improv theatre techniques have been successfully used with dementia patients).

  2. Thanks for this, Nick: quite timely for me in my work situation at the moment. Your blog also got me thinking back to the Carol Dweck’s work on Mindsets, and the impact this has on the narrative we construct (either knowingly or subconsciously) regarding how we operate in the world.
    So, thanks for keeping me thinking.

    1. Nick Ingram

      Hi Catherine – I think goes straight into Dweck’s growth mindset stuff. I’m noticing my non-education clients now talking about Dweck – she’s made it into the business world now.

  3. Thanks Nick, great post. The power of the mind to impact how we perceive and react to events is just incredible. I apply something similar to cycling to improve my resilience on the bike, which I learnt from a fellow cyclist, but never realised it was founded in such solid theory: Setbacks are temporary, specific and external. Good things are permanent, global and internal.

    When faced with a setback you need to think of it as temporary, specific and external. Temporary is about thinking it will end, and you will get an opportunity to get over it. Specific is about making the effect narrow. External is about making it not your fault. For instance getting a puncture when you’re leading a race could make you think it’s all over and you may as well give up. On the other hand, you could tell yourself it’s just unlucky, fix yourself up, remember the race isn’t over and concentrate on doing what you did to get yourself to the front in the first place.

    When the good things happen you make them permanent, global and internal. It’s about telling yourself you did well in a race because you trained right, rode smart and you’re a top rider; not because you were lucky, in the right place at the right time or because the big riders didn’t show up that day. Thinking in that way carries through to the next race, meaning you show up knowing you deserve to be there and absolutely can get that podium finish.

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