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Kelley’s Attribution Theory Essay

In this essay, readers will be presented with the literature review of Kelley’s attribution theory (1967), which was developed after the research done by Fritz Heider on attribution theory (1944, 1958). Moreover, a real world example relating to the theory will also be discussed along with the limitations and the three elements of the theory, which are consistency, distinctiveness and consensus. With that, recommendations will be given on how my experience can be improved with the chosen theory.

There have been a great number of research done on perception over the last decade and social psychology had been primarily focused, perceiving causes of a person’s behavior (Kelley and Michela, 1980). In Kelley (1973), it is mentioned that Heider (1958) research has played a major role in contributing to the origination of attribution theory and it is still the major source cited in publications. Kelley’s attribution theory was also built onto Heider’s (1958) theory with an understanding that humans are “naïve psychologists” determining behaviors based on causes and effects (Hewstone and Jaspars, 1987). In Kelley (1973), it was mentioned that the central idea of attribution theory is the causal concept where human’s behavior relies on either the characteristics of the person (internal attribution) or the environment (external attribution). To determine whether a person’s behavior is caused by internal or external attribution, Kelley’s theory requires us to refer to the three sources of information, which are consensus, distinctiveness and consistency of a certain action by the person (Kelley, 1973). Consensus information examines if others had acted in the same manner when faced with the same situation. If the behavior is uncommon for others it would be low consensus and the opposite applies. As for consistency, it would be rated high if similar behavior occurs frequently and low if a different behavior is detected for the same situation. The distinctiveness information on the other hand is to determine if the same person behave similarly in different situation. If the person behaves similarly in many different situations, then distinctiveness is low and distinctiveness is high when the person only behaves in such a manner in certain situations (Martinko and Thompson, 1998). The three analysis are a part of “covariation principle”, which is an effect said to have resulted from the compounding of one of its possible causes (Semin, 1980). Additionally, Kelley’s attribution theory is also classified as an ANOVA model because it includes method that is similar to the analysis of variance (Ahn, Kalish, Medin and Geman, 1995). In Martinko (1995) research, it is showed that the theory of causation also affects expectations. If people attribute their failure to internal factors such as their incapability, the individual will have higher chance of growing lower expectations for any future successes. It is also unlikely for them to strive further next time. Thus, the application of this theory is to assist employers in assessing the cause of an employee’s performance accurately. Following the proper steps will also enhance managerial effectiveness and enable employees to fix poor performances (Martinko, Harvey and Douglas, 2007). Additionally, the attr\ibution theory can also be understood as a motive to discover causal components in every behavior (Kelley, 1973). In short, it is a process in differentiating whether the behavior of another person is caused by personal responsibilities or situational factors.
Then again, there are still limitations in this theory such as fundamental attribution error. Ross (1977) stated that the error is the tendency of people overestimating the causes of internal factors and underestimate the impact of external factors towards the behavior of others. Tetlock (1985) explained that people choose dispositional explanations because it is the reasonable one that appears by default in the people’s mind. They also tend to hardly care about the less obvious external attribution towards the behavior of others. Moreover, there is also self-serving bias in Kelley’s attribution theory. People tend to take credit for their success and blame the external attribution for their own failure (Zuckerman, 1979). He further explained that people tend to enhance their self-esteem by rejecting responsibilities for their failure. In addition, research also showed that people tend to make judgments of what is right and wrong with a bias to their own self-interest (Babcock and Loewenstein, 1997).
Last summer, I completed my internship in a luggage company and my position was to assist while learning from the area manager who manages several major outlets. There, I experienced an incident that I can relate to Kelley’s attribution theory. We relocated employee named Chong from one of the outlet to the company’s main outlet as he had good sales performance in the past. However, in the first month since the relocation, sales dropped and it spiraled down from there. When the area manager questioned Chong about his sales performance, he placed the blame on the consumers instead, saying that they were not interested in buying. The area manager took it as an excuse for his underperformance. She reprimanded him by saying that the decrease in sales was due to his lack of motivation to work after getting promoted to the main outlet. Not long after, the area manager relocated Chong for the second time to an outlet that had lower sales performance and put Lee in charge of the main outlet instead. It surprised her when the sales were still decreasing in the main outlet whereas the sales in the outlet where Chong is slightly higher than the usual sales. After the area manager looked into the matter seriously, she realized that it was actually due to the language ability of both Lee and Chong. The area manager missed out the fact that the crowds who visit the main outlet are a majority, Malays. Although Lee and Chong can both speak the language (Malay) but they are not fluent enough to convers in Malay to close sales as both of them only speak Chinese fluently. In short, the area manager had made the wrong judgment and perception towards Chong. Then, in terms of Kelley’s attribution theory, consistency is low for Chong’s performance in the main outlet, as he never had low sales performance in the past. Chong also have a reputation in doing a good job on his work, which is why he got promoted at the first place. His behavior in the main outlet is rated high for distinctiveness. Even after Lee replaced Chong in his position, the sales were still going down-slope, which makes it a high consensus in Kelley’s attribution theory with other people facing the same problem too. With all this information, it can be concluded that Chong’s bad performance was due to an external attribution. Fundamental attribution error also occurs in this situation as the area manager immediately perceived Chong’s actions as being caused by his internal attribution (i.e., lack of motivation) and not external when the sales was decreasing. Bartunek (1981) mentioned that this error is related to the ease of response, as seen when a problem occur it is easier to assume that it is the employee’s responsibility instead of looking at the more complex external attributions. At the same time, Chong automatically recognises his failure as influenced by an external outcome, blaming the situation for his bad performance. This is an example of a self-serving bias in Kelley’s attribution theory as people are likely to attribute unfavorable outcome to other things other than themselves. Duval and Silvia (2002) also indicate that people often acknowledge themselves with having positive traits and deny negative traits to embed a high self-esteem.

The recommended solutions rely on the honesty of the perceiver while taking in consideration all the factors that might influence a person’s behavior.
To understand a person’s ability accurately, it will require an understanding of what one can and cannot do and the influence of its external attributions. An additional component is also what one will and will not do, which contribute significantly to decision-making processes. Self-awareness will help in diagnosing feedback and knowing the limitations and ability of an individual. The knowledge discovered does not necessarily need to be satisfactory or non-satisfactory to the self-image (Sedikides and Strubes, 1997). However, Duval and Silvia’s (2002) study showed that if self-awareness is heightened, the individual could then differentiate their own capabilities and moderate individual failure attributions. Hence, it is recommended for Chong to increase his self-awareness. If he had done so, he would have identified his language barrier explained his dilemma to the manager to avoid her accusations. On the other hand, by increasing overall self-awareness, managers can commence the Johari Window established by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham among her subordinates. The Johari Window assists in seeking self-awareness and how others perceive us through feedback processes (Lowy and Hood, 2004).

Free activity area | Blind area | Hidden or avoided area | Unknown activity area |
The standard framework of Johari Window (Luft, 1982)

According to the framework above, upper left refers to the behavior that is known to self and others while the upper right is when we are unclear of our behaviors, which are obvious to others. The lower left corner refers to the beliefs we have about ourselves but choose not to reveal to others and the lower right corner discerns the talents, behavior and opinions that are unknown to self and others (Luft, 1982). This framework can be done first by completing the questionnaires about oneself, for example “what are the skills that I have?” and then proceed to getting feedback from other staffs about their opinions on each another. With the result from the framework, employees can then benefit in making adjustments in their communication and behavior among their colleagues to achieve a higher level of effectiveness (Lowy and Hood, 2004).

In addition, it is important to have positive communication among managers and employees to promote self-enhancement enabling both parties to participate and discuss openly about any organisational issues (Smidts, Pruyn and Riel, 2001). In this case, the area manager should have communicated positively with Chong in the first place instead of immediately blaming his actions on his internal attributions. Moreover, if the goals and objectives of the organisation are clearly defined to the employees, they will discover the salient values that differentiate them from other oganisations (Dutton, Dukerich and Harquil, 1994). This encourages employees’ productivity and elevates their self-worth in the organisation. In reality, the area manager’s knowledge be it little or no knowledge at all on the external attribution that will affect her employees’ performance (Hinds and Kiesler, 2002). It is recommended to assess the three dimensions of Kelley’s attribution theory, consensus, consistency and distinctiveness when handling any managerial issue. In Smith and Miller (1979), it is also obvious that people make immediate complex judgments about one another’s behavior and eliminates any potential causes according to factual information that are available to them. Thus, it is important for someone who holds a higher managerial post to recognize relevant information about their employees at all time and avoid making decisions with information that are spontaneously available to assess any employees’ behavior (Feldman, 1981). Feldman (1981) also mentioned that in evaluating an employee’s behavior, it is also advisable to retrieve the information from past memories of the person to avoid immediate judgment based on current negative events. This shows that the area managers should retrieve the information of Chong’s overall performance before assuming that it was due to his internal attribution for the decrease in sales.

In conclusion, to practice fairness and equality in the work place, managerial staffs should detach from their emotional judgments and rely on factual data collected over a period of time. This is preferable now that we can distinguish the existence of internal and external attributions, which will influence a person’s behavior.

Reference Lists:

Ahn, W., Kalish, C. W., Medin, D. L., & Gelman, S. A. (1995). The role of covariation versus mechanism information in causal attribution. Cognition, 54(3), 299-352. Retrieved from

Bartunek, J. M. (1981). Why did you do that? Attribution theory in organizations.
Business Horizons, 24(5), 66-71. Retrieved from

Babcock, L., & Loewenstein, G. (1997). Explaining barganing impasse: The role of self-serving biases. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 11(1), 109-126. Retrieved from Dutton, J. E., Dukerich, J. M., & Harquali, C. V. (1994). Organizational image and
Member identification. Administrative Science Quarterly, 39(2), 239-263. Retrieved from

Duval, T . S., & Silvia, P. J. (2002). Self-awareness, probability of improvement, and the self-serving bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(1), 49-61. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.82.1.49

Feldman, J. M. (1981). Beyond attribution theory: Cognitive processes in performance appraisal. Journal of Applied Psychology, 66(2), 127-148. doi : 10.1037/0021-9010.66.2.127.

Hewstone, H. & Jaspars, J. (1987). Covariation and causal attribution: A logical model of the intuitive analysis of variance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(4), 663-672. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.53.4.663.

Hinds, P. J., & Kiesler, S. (2002). Distributed Work. Massachusetts, United States of
America: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kelley, H. H. (1973). The processes of causal attribution. American Psychologist,
28(2), 107-128. doi: 10.1037/h0034225

Kelley, H. H., & Michela, J. L. (1980). Attribution theory and research. Annual
Review of Psychology, 31, 457-501. Retrieved from

Lowy, A., & Hood, P. (2004). The Power of 2 x 2 Matrix: Using 2 x 2 Thinking to Solve Business Problems and Make Better Decisions. San Francisco, United States of America: John Wiley & Son, Inc. | Luft, J. (1982). The Johari Window: A Graphic Model of Awareness in Interpersonal Relations. Retrieved March 25, 2014, from, M. J. (1995). Attribution Theory: An Organizational Perspective. Florida, United States of America : St Lucie Press. | Martinko, M. J., Harvey, P., & Douglas, S. C. (2007). The role, function, and contribution of attribution theory to leadership: A review. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(6), 561-585. Retrieved from |

Martinko, M. J., & Thomson, F. N. (1998). A synthesis and extension of the Weiner and Kelley attribution models. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, (20)4, 271-284. doi: 10.1207/ s15324834basp2004_4

Ross, L. (1977). The intutive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10). New York: Academic Press.

Sedikides, C., & Strube, M. J. (1997). Self-evaluation: to thine own self be good, to thine own self be sure, to thine own self be true, and to thine own self be better. Retrieved March 28, 2014, from

Semin, G. R. (1980). A gloss on attribution theory. British Journal of Social and
Clinical Psychology, 19(4), 291-300. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8260.1980.tb00356.x

Smidts, A. (2001). The impact of employee communication and perceived external prestige on organizational identification. Academy of Management Journal, 44(5), 1051-1062. doi: 10.2307/3069448.

Smith, E. R., and Miller, F., D. (1979). Salience and the cognitive mediation of attribution. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(12), 2240-2252. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.37.12.2240.

Tetlock, P. E. (1985). Accountability: A social check on the fundamental attribution error. Social Psychology Quarterly, 48(3), 227-236.

Zuckerman, M. (1979). Attribution of success and failure revisited, or: The motivational bias is alive and well in attribution theory. Journal of Personality, 47(2), 245-287. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.1979.tb00202.x.

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...KXI723 Organisational Problem Solving for Business Analysts, Semester 2, 2012 Assignment 1 – Executive Report on SODA/Cognitive Mapping Title: Executive Report Type: In-Semester - individual assignment Task Length: 12 A4 pages in 12 point font, double spaced , plus bibliography, use normal margins Weighting: 10% Due: 3.00pm Tuesday 21st August Description: Executive Report on SODA/Cognitive Mapping Methodology for Strategy Formulation and Organisational Problem Solving Imagine that you are an early career junior executive in a multinational corporation. You are well thought of by the CEO who regards you as an “ideas person”. The CEO has asked you to prepare a short briefing paper or executive report on the SODA/Cognitive Mapping methodology. The CEO hopes that you can clearly describe and explain the methodology in about 6 pages – the CEO does not have time to do the reading of books and journals himself and, further, does not have the time to read a report of more than 6 pages. For academic purposes please reference the Executive Report carefully, listing the references in alphabetical order of family names in a section called “References” [The References section does not count as part of the 6 pages]. In the Executive Report you are expected to cover, among other things, the following: • The assumptions and theory behind SODA/Cognitive Mapping • The nature of cognitive mapping, oval mapping and causal mapping and any differences......

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