Attribution Anxiety

We learn by seeking causal explanations for things. If we can reliably attribute effects to causes we can learn how to get more positive effects and fewer negative ones.

But what if we’re not as good at causal attribution as we might hope?

A well-known bias is the Fundamental Attribution Error which ascribes causes to individuals rather than situations. This bias leads us to see halos over CEOs, click on ‘do this to be a success’ fodder, and judge people as ‘bad’.

There’s a wider context about how we view organisational failure, however complex and systemic. The simplistic narrative, inflamed by media outrage, is that someone must be responsible, accountable, guilty, at fault, to blame. Big heads must roll for presiding over the failure, unless it can be neatly pinned on a scapegoat.

At its extreme is the quintessential blame game, a culture where the two main rules are 1. Cover Your Arse and 2. Point The Finger. Presumably this is what working in Alan Sugar’s businesses must be like if The Apprentice is to be believed; ‘You’re to blame so you’re fired!’

What interests me is how the human causal machinery responds when performance falls short of, or exceeds a goal. In spite of the routine use of targets in organisations this isn’t a widely considered aspect of motivational psychology.

The received wisdom is that targets motivate people because achievement is rewarded, usually financially. Much time is then spent debating the targets and the size of the rewards. Few will test whether contingent incentives improve performance any more reliably than just having the goal itself. We may also think that other people are more motivated by money than they really are.

Setting a target implicitly creates something else: a gap. This is the gap between the current performance level and a target performance level. In the goal-setting literature this is called Goal Discrepancy which may be negative or positive; or more simply ‘below target’ or ‘above target’.

Setting a target also creates a need for measurement of a ‘performance level’, whatever that means in each case, as well as the periodic comparison of the measurement with the target. Creating this performance measurement system isn’t trivial and can add its own distortions, often by measuring the wrong things.

But even with great performance measures, the way targets are created and asserted is hugely important. Receiving feedback about a performance gap triggers the search for causal attribution – ‘why?’ questions – and a bundle of emotional responses.

Goal Setting Theory and Attribution Theory are intimately linked* by this ‘why?’ response. Attribution Theory describes the assignment of causes as Dispositional (Internal self-efficacy) or Situational (External forces) and whether these causes are stable and controllable. Different combinations of these attributions produce different emotional affects and behavioural responses.

When below target, surely individuals respond by striving to close the gap? Not always. They feel shame, guilt, denial, anger. They feel powerless, without agency, autonomy or mastery. They give up on the goal, try to change it, or cheat. The flipside is that people take the credit for ‘smashing’ goals and neglect the role played by others and by luck. Should we perhaps better understand these responses before rushing to targets?

Because of errors in the interpretation and attribution of goal gaps, our own causal beliefs (and those of the boss) will be some distance from the truth. Fixing faulty attributions and harmful beliefs is what psychological interventions, like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, aim to do.

Shame. Guilt. Anger. Powerlessness. These aren’t associated with positive mental health and might lead us to ask whether this is how we want people to feel? What if we add in the fear of a consequential loss of security, money, status? We can start to understand why targets for some are anxiety-inducing threats to be avoided.

Who could blame them?

*Attributions and Emotions as Mediators and/or Moderators in the Goal-Striving Process. Eberly, Liu, Mitchell, Lee