Leadership: How attributional style errors contribute to faulty thinking

Typical pattern of attributional errors: taking credit for positive outcomes and attributing negative outcomes to external factors

Typical pattern of attributional errors: taking credit for positive outcomes and attributing negative outcomes to external factors

What are attributional errors?

When discussing optimism and attributional style with leaders, they need to be informed of research about common attributional errors that can lead to faulty thinking and errors in causal analysis. There is a tendency in each one of us to exaggerate our own talents – to believe we are above average in our endowment of positive traits and abilities - even when being modest in our self-assessment.

The inclination to exaggerate our own talents is amplified by our tendency to misperceive the causes of certain events. The typical pattern of such attribution errors is for people to take credit for positive outcomes and to attribute negative outcomes to external factors, no matter what the true cause. 

One study of letters to shareholders in annual reports, for example, found that executives tend to attribute favourable outcomes to factors under their control, such as their corporate strategy or their R & D programs. Unfavourable outcomes are attributed to uncontrollable external factors such as weather or inflation.

There is a large body of research showing that we tend to exaggerate the degree of control we exert over events. We tend to discount the role of simple good fortune or bad timing (luck). Executives and entrepreneurs are highly susceptible to biases related to their degree of control. 

Check your biases and get frank and honest feedback

Business leaders routinely exaggerate their personal abilities, especially for hard-to-measure traits like managerial skill. They are prone to thinking that they are in control more than what is actual or even reasonable. Relying on an idealized self-image, some executives really believe that they are in control of both people and events. They tend to minimize the role of random events, uncontrollable circumstances, and unintended consequences that could impede successful goal completion. 

When such attributional errors show up in their thinking and planning, executives can experience significant disappointment and negative emotions. Access to frank and honest feedback is crucial for leaders to acquire realistic and authentic optimism and create positive emotions that can be sustained. Such feedback is easier and more effective coming from an external executive coach rather than from peers. 

These cognitive biases, in the form of attribution errors, are important concepts to consider when developing realistic yet positive emotions. Again, a skilled executive coach is aware of these human tendencies for error and can provide realistic feedback when working with leaders to develop effectiveness. 

Driving a positive workplace environment with authentic and realistic optimism

Keeping employees happy and feeling good starts with developing your own conscious awareness of feelings and thoughts. As a leader, you are responsible for creating positive emotions that can drive the energetic climate that leads to positive business results. Even in the bleakest of economic situations – especially then – a leader must find authentic and realistic optimism to drive the climate that will lead employees to work together successfully.


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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