Do You Know Your Workplace 'Attributional Style'?

Courtney Clark

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What does the little voice in your head tell you when something in life goes wrong? Does the voice berate you for your failure? Or does it encourage you to dust yourself off and start over again?

The way you explain the reason for that failure is part of your "attributional style." Studies have shown that a person's attributional style plays a huge role in understanding how you respond to challenge and stress.

Someone with a positive attributional style knows that bad things can sometimes happen, and realizes that he doesn't deserve all the blame for that fact. A person who explains things with positive attribution is less likely to feel personally responsible for things going wrong, and should be able to pick themselves back up and move on with a new plan.

On the flip side, a person with a negative attributional style has an inner monologue saying that everything that goes wrong in life is due to his or her own personal failings. Scientists describe the three explanations of negative attributional style as personal, permanent, and pervasive.

An example of a personal explanation might be: "Laurie isn't returning my phone calls, so she must be taking her work to another firm because she doesn't like working with me." In this case, the speaker has attributed a personal underlying cause to the problem. He is making the issue personal, where it may not be warranted to do so. Of course, as an outsider, it's easy to see that Laurie might just be busy or on vacation!

A permanent explanation for an unwanted event might be: "I will never get a job in this industry, because I'm just not smart enough." With a permanent explanation, the individual tells herself that the cause of this problem (her perceived intellectual deficiency) can't be changed under any circumstances. Someone with a positive attributional style would instead say: "I haven't been in this industry long enough to be a good candidate, but if I work hard and apply again in a few years, I'll have a shot."

A pervasive explanation means that whatever is going wrong now is going to go equally wrong in all aspects of life. "Of COURSE I didn't get chosen to work on that project. No one wants to be around me anyway. Even my friends don't call me very much."

Having a negative attributional style at work hinders your ability to respond to on-the-job pressures with flexibility and a good attitude. That pessimistic outlook doesn't make it easy to problem-solve or come up with creative possibilities. Teamwork can be more difficult when someone with an overly-negative attributional style is involved. Finally, people who explain things in a consistently negative way are less likely to be looked upon as leadership material.

One important caveat about positive attributional style: having positive explanations for things is mostly a good trait, but it can be taken too far. No one wants to work with a colleague who thinks nothing is his fault. Positive attributional style isn't about deflecting blame. Sometimes, you have to take the blame when warranted. But if your attributional style is positive, your brain should respond, "How do I keep that from happening ever again?" The challenge isn't personal, permanent, or pervasive; you can fix it.

Your attributional style, whether positive or negative, plays a role in how successful you will be in the workplace. By describing the things that happen to you in a more positive way, and silencing the negative personal, permanent, and pervasive explanations in your brain, you can make yourself a more resilient colleague at work.

Courtney Clark is the author of "The Giving Prescription: A Personal Plan for Healing Through Helping" She is a two-time cancer survivor, a brain aneurysm survivor, keynote speaker, founder of a nonprofit, and a resilience expert.