We, as humans, are inquisitive. We try to explain things in order to have a rationale (explanation) for their occurrence or existence. This allows us to understand and function better in our environment. This fundamental approach influences our culture, society, and relationships, as well as daily interactions, in subtle and sometimes profound ways. This phenomenon was first studied and discussed by Fritz Heider as attributional bias in the late 1950s and further developed by other scientists.
Even though there are some personal and/or cultural differences in the making of attributions, there seems to be a universality to the attribution process (see Figure 1). People can make relatively logical assessment of situations and/or information both in life and at work, but we have to be careful of possible biases in our interaction with others.
Because we perceive the world through our senses, and we make a judgment based on our past experience, we inevitably create a personal reality. This colors our understanding of the world around us. As a result of this "personal understanding," different people inevitably interpret the world differently and, in turn, reach different conclusions about information, situations, or people.
Variations in attribution
Attribution invariably establishes our reaction, or response to information or situations. The important distinction is that different people may see the same situation or hear the same information and arrive at completely different conclusions. In field operations, this becomes important in leader-member exchange, but more importantly in safety manager-worker interactions.
Say that you have a group of people walking the construction site and they all observe a worker engaged in performing a task. Observer A might tell the others,” Did you see the way the worker grimaced when he lifted the material, it looked way too heavy for him.” Observer B might offer, "I thought he was clowning for his coworker." While observer C might say, “No. no he looked bored, out of his mind.” Observer D might muse, "It sure looked like he was unhappy to see us observing him.” And Observer E might contradict everyone by saying, “that worker just injured himself by lifting that heavy load.” Every one of these observers is going to have a different emotional reaction as a result of the attribution they just made.
Observer A might think the worker will get injured due to the heavy loads associated with that task. This may lead to the thinking that project supervision did not make a proper task demand assessment, assigned the wrong worker to that particular task, or that the supervisor is inexperienced.
Observer B might feel that the workers are goofing off because the project supervisor is ineffective and allowing workers to engage in unsafe behavior. Requiring intervention dealing with more effective management techniques.
Observer C might think that this is a classic example of complacency at work, which may result in an injury, and that supervisors ought to make the work more interesting and the workers more engaged.
Observer D might think that the worker was doing something he should not have been doing. This worker might be thought of as being incompetent or possibly subversive.
Observer E might state that she just witnessed an accident where the worker just got hurt in the act of lifting the heavy material, requiring the work stopped and the worker examined.
This scenario depicts different attribution made by five individuals observing a worker performing work on site. Though they all saw the same behavior, every one of them made a different attribution. And, more importantly, the different attribution led to different conclusions about the worker, the work, the competence of that supervisor or the capability and/or competence of supervisors assigned to various projects by management.
When making attributions, people tend to interpret their own behavior differently than that of others, this is known as attribution bias. When it comes to making personal attributions, people are more likely to explain their own successes in terms of dispositional factors (i.e., caused by their personality or innate ability) while ignoring the surrounding environmental or situational factors. Conversely, they tend to explain their failures as caused by environmental or situational factors, which they may consider of as beyond their control.
People are more likely to explain other people's failures in terms of dispositional factors (i.e., caused by that person's personality or capabilities) while conversely, they tend to explain other people's successes as caused by environmental or situational factors. Due to attribution bias, this assignment does not always accurately reflect reality. In many cases, this may lead to emotional responses reflected in behaviors that are inappropriate for the given situation, thereby leading to unnecessary problems or difficulties in relationships both personal and professional.
An example of this might be: I was promoted because I am the smartest or more capable than anyone else at work, or I did not get promoted because the boss is playing favorites. Conversely a coworker got promoted because they are a “kiss ass” or they did not get promoted because they are incompetent!
Examples of attributions
An informed and knowledgeable supervisor or safety manager may function more effectively when dealing with others by understanding their own tendencies, or other people’s inclination for attribution and the potential emotional reactions. This may lead to better managing group interactions and relationships by steering conversations or interaction to neutral ground as a result, avoiding potential barriers to cooperation and more effective teamwork. This ability may prove very effective in coaching and counselling workers to become better at dealing with risk or working with others.
Attributions play a role in the analysis of accidents. Researchers found that there is a tendency to attribute more responsibility for a severe accident than for a minor one to the perpetrator.
Researchers also found that when investigators perceived "similarity" to the person involved in the accident, that they attribute less responsibility to them, the opposite was true when personal dissimilarities were found.
Project supervision may consider a worker as having “no common sense” if they are involved in an accident which is thought off as avoidable.
Situations contributing to disagreements may emanate from what is known as "hostile attribution bias." For example, a worker may notice a couple of other workers talking / laughing while looking in his general direction, assuming hostile intent even though their behavior was benign.
Researchers have found an association between hostile attribution bias and potential aggressive behavior. Knowing this may provide possible ways to defuse potential confrontations or possible reactive aggressive behavior.
In safety, hostile attribution bias may result in passive aggressive responses to complying with suggested corrective behavioral actions, work process or procedure changes. This understanding may open subtle means for the safety practitioner to more effectively deal with workers on site so as to achieve a more cooperative and safer work environment.
Other attribution biases
Researchers have found that sometimes people make self-serving attributions when involved in conflict.
A worker has an accident while involved in a very difficult task, may get blamed due to the attribution of responsibility bias.
Cause & effect attribution come into play when the supervisor expects a worker to be able to successfully deal with the task’s exposures but has an accident for which he is blamed.
Attributions may also be made for communication behavior which include all the nonverbal manifestations the speaker may engage in.
System problems may cumulatively place workers on the path to experiencing an accident. The investigator knowing of the worker’s involvement, will in all likelihood identify the workers as the cause due to hindsight bias.
Researchers have identified many different types of attribution biases, all of which impact the way people react and/or respond to one another. Every comment a person makes, every action in which a person engages, and every piece of information a person processes can be subject to attributional analysis or bias by themselves as well as by others. This analysis has the potential for significant implications in the relationship between the two. It will potentially affect the way they respond or view each other. The attributional processes are vital as well as consequential to interpersonal communication and relationships. From a larger perspective, this may have an indirect impact on internal processes, external relationships, and ultimately the outcome of organizations for whom these people work.
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