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The Mental Model of Attribution Theory (aka “Cause Theory”) in Business

Attribution Theory could easily be called “Cause Theory” or “Explanation Theory” because it centers around the cause or explanation of why something happens.

This is critical to understand in business.

Let’s say, for example, your Web designer builds a new home page and it is considered by users to be awesome — if they attribute it to their own brilliance then that’s internal attribution.

If, on the other hand, the designer’s new Web page is criticized as shoddy and the designer attributes the fault to having too little time to do a good job, then that’s external attribution.

It’s important to note that most people take credit (Internal) for positive results and place blame (external) for poor results.

People also attribute based on whether the cause is stable or unstable. A stable cause of a poor home page design might be that the designer’s employer/boss is considered to be bad at giving design direction. An unstable cause of a bad exam might be that the designer got little to no sleep during the home page design project.

Finally, the cause is either controllable or uncontrollable. A controllable cause might be that the designer could have chosen a design project that had a better boss. An uncontrollable cause would be that the designer had no choice but to get assigned that boss.

Why Attribution Theory is Important in Business

Well, according to this summary of Attribution Theory from Florida International University, if you can affect how people understand and explain what is going on, you might be able to influence their future behavior.

This can be hugely important in business.

For example, I try to avoid hiring people who take credit when their projects succeed (internal attribution) and then point fingers at others when their project doesn’t do so well (external attribution).

And since all workers have some degree of external attribution, I try to minimize the excuses that they could use to explain why a project goes wrong.

For example, if a Web designer seems to suffer from external attribution, then I would make sure to give that Web designer an agreed-upon reasonable amount of time to complete the new home page (that way they would be hard-pressed to blame the external reason of time for any poor performance).

I have minimized their opportunity to make an excuse.

This article on Attribution Theory continues my quest to list out The Top 100 Mental Models Needed to Succeed in Business.