Leadership: How do you explain good or bad events?

The key to developing your capacity for realistic optimism lies in the way you explain good or bad events.....the weather for instance.

The key to developing your capacity for realistic optimism lies in the way you explain good or bad events.....the weather for instance.

What is Attributional Style?

Continuing on our leadership theme related to the importance of optimism, a leader's attributional style can make or break the effectiveness of optimism. The key to developing the capacity for realistic optimism lies in our individual attributional or explanatory style: the way we explain good or bad events. Everyone has a habitual way of explaining events or attributing causes. This usually happens in split seconds, often out of conscious awareness. 

Increasing awareness of your attributional style is a good way to increase your choice of thinking about events and your choice of feelings. For example, do you tend to: 

  • take credit for your successes or deflect and minimize your successes?
  • look outside of yourself to assign blame or look within to acknowledge your responsibility?
  • give general reasons for good events or give reasons specific to the situation?
  • look for transient reasons for bad events or believe the cause to be permanent?

Each person's complex pattern of explanations is influenced by the person's attributional style. There are six Attributional Styles in explaining events:

  1. Internal 
  2. External 
  3. Specific 
  4. Global
  5. Temporary 
  6. Permanent 

How Optimists Think About Life Events

When optimists experience negative events, they tend to think "this is temporary, for this particular event only, and I'm not the cause of this event." When optimists experience positive events, they tend to think "This is permanent, this is true for all life events, and I'm the cause." 

How Optimists Explain Life Events

An optimist explains the cause of good life events as being permanent, global, and internal: “I succeeded because I'm good.” An optimist explains the cause of bad life events as being temporary, specific, and external:“I failed because that assessment was only examining one part of my ability and it was too difficult.”

Those people who intentionally reflect on their tendencies and attributions, can consider other perspectives and by doing so, create more positive feelings. Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania developed The Attributional Style Questionnaire based on years of research and the results of over 100 research studies with 15,000 people. You can take the self-assessment online in the form of the Optimism Test at www.authentichappiness.org

How to be More Effective with Your Attributional Style

Working on these concepts is more effective when working with an executive coach who is competent in giving feedback on the emotional competencies. An executive coach who is trained and certified in emotional intelligence is a valuable resource. 

The challenge for leaders developing their capacities for emotional intelligence is that usually, by the time they are promoted to top positions, they already have a good understanding of human emotions, and already have skills related to optimism and positive emotions. Raising conscious awareness of the complexities of human emotions – their own and those they lead in order to improve business results – is challenging. Only in partnership with a skilled professional coach are results achieved. 

Improved emotional intelligence with an increase in realistic optimism and positive emotions has been shown to lead to improved climate and good business results. Everyone can improve their capacity to create positive emotions, no matter what their level, even when faced with stressful challenges.

What are Attributional Errors?

Equally important when discussing Attributional Style with leaders, is developing awareness of the research about common attributional errors that can lead to faulty thinking and errors in causal analysis. Our next post will offer another level of awareness on attributional errors and the consequences.


We would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Let's start a conversation about the value we can bring to your organization. We help leaders to be effective by recognizing and utilizing their competencies while adapting their behaviour in situations that require a different approach. Our clients become aware of their particular way-of-leading by participating in various assessments: Emotional Intelligence, Emergenetics, and the Emerson Suite 3D Personal Profile for leadership and management effectiveness.

Contact Patricia Muir at patricia@maestroquality.com, at 416-804-4383, on LinkedInMaestro’s FacebookTwitter.

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