For over fifty years, psychologists have been researching how people form conclusions about their own thought processes and those of others. Attribution theories have shed light on cognitive errors that people tend to make. However, the research has largely ignored the subject of blame in conflict situations. This article will illustrate some of the value of the theory to diagnose and prescribe interventions into conflict situations.
Imagine a scenario in which an employee and his manager are conducting 360- degree performance reviews on each other. The employee’s productivity rose 10% over the past year, while the department’s overall productivity rose only 5%. In this case, the manager gave a lukewarm appraisal of the employee’s performance, attributing the higher productivity in part to systemic efficiencies introduced by the manager herself, and some ‘cutting-of-corners’ by the employee. The employee, in turn, gave the manager a below average review, attributing the department’s productivity to hard-working employees like himself, in spite of the manager’s inability to motivate other employees to similar achievements. In other words, both individuals saw the situation very differently.
So how does attribution theory shed light on this divergence of opinion? Attribution theory says there are two kinds of explanations people can make about observed outcomes. The first explanation is that the cause originated from dispositional factors, that is, from innate qualities of the observed actor. The second explanation is that the cause is situational, that is, it arises from factors in the environment, outside of the control of the actor.
Attribution experiments have demonstrated a tendency in observers to attribute the successes of others to situational factors (e.g., systemic efficiencies), whereas they ascribe their personal successes to their own disposition (e.g., hard working). The reverse is the case for observed failures. This pattern has been termed the self-serving bias.
The performance review scenario is a typical example used in attribution research. However, it is not a conflict situation yet. So let us carry it a step further, and have the employee and his manager get angry with each other over these “unfair” evaluations. Let us view this from the employee’s perspective as he forms suspicions or conclusions about why the manager gave such a lukewarm review.
When we consider the possibilities, we can imagine five different types of attributions that the employee may think:
1. Personal or Intentional: My manager dislikes me, so evaluated me more harshly.
2. Negative Dispositional: My manager is generally unfair and critical, and has probably given others negative reviews too.
3. Neutral Dispositional: My manager has high standards. That is not bad, but in this case I think it was unfair.
4. Situational: The manager has been under fiscal pressures to keep salary increases down. Also, the manager does not have sufficient information about my contributions.
5. Self- or Shared: I suppose I did cut corners, and my manager is right.
Attributions 1 and 2 are blaming attributions. The other three are non-blaming attributions. If the employee believes 1 or 2, he will likely lose trust in his manager and react with hostility. On the other hand, if he accepts (wholly or in part) attributions 3-5, he will inevitably be more forgiving of her actions.
Hence the creation of attributional retraining. This is a process by which a person is led to reflect on his/her own attributions for a situation, and consider alternative explanations. For those of us who resolve disputes, either professionally or informally, we might be surprised to know that we do attributional retraining all the time. We naturally raise other explanations for the conflict behaviour, and we help information to be exchanged that might change assumptions and perceptions. However, we do it unconsciously, without being deliberate about it. Were we to use the categories above and be more strategic in our attributional retraining, we would see better results.
For instance, if the employee attributes his poor evaluation to the hostility of his manager, it may not be as helpful to point out the systemic efficiencies brought in by the manager, or the possibility that the employee cut corners in his work. It might be more effective to seek information that would directly address the suspicion of hostility, and then consider other explanations for the poor review.
In one case I mediated, involving a dispute between co-owners of a house, Owner 1 blamed the cause of the conflict on the boyfriend of Owner 2. However, as I interviewed others in the house, it became clear that other factors had created stressors within the house before the boyfriend came into the picture. The house was unusually crowded, and Owner 1 had a newborn baby while her husband had lost his job. As I raised some of these other explanations, it put the conflict into a different perspective for Owner 1. She was able to accept that situational factors had caused some of the conflict, and this information balanced the negative dispositional attribution she had of Owner 2’s boyfriend.
In conclusion, attribution theory is a little-known area of psychology that has a use for conflict resolution work, but only if practitioners are able to produce a useful model for diagnosing and resolving conflict situations. Mediators know that doubt is one of their greatest tools in their kit. Attributional retraining can help mediators to skillfully shake a party’s certainty in his/her assumptions, and thereby change the context of the blame game.
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