B. Schyns & T. Hansbrough : Attribution Theory and LeadershipSocial Psychology 2008; Vol. 39(3):197–203© 2008 Hogrefe & Huber Pub lish ers
Why the Brewery Ran Out of Beer The Attribution of Mistakes in a Leadership Context
Birgit Schyns1 and Tiffany Hansbrough2
1University of Portsmouth, UK, 2Baldwin-Wallace College, USA
Abstract. According to Heider (1958), observers tend to discount situational factors and overemphasize the internal characteristics of the actor when making causal attributions. Specifically, in an organizational setting, leadership perceptions of followers may be influenced by the fundamental attribution error. Accordingly, followers may be more likely to attribute leader mistakes to internal factors. However, we suggest that this tendency may be modified by a variety of factors including the extent to which followers hold romantic leader images, whether leaders match followers’ implicit leadership theories, the characteristics of the mistakes themselves, and the nature of the leader-follower relationship. We develop a model of attribution of mistakes to a direct supervisor, derive propositions for leadership research, and explore implications for practice.
Key words: attribution, leadership, implicit leadership theories
Heider’s (1958) book The Psychology of Interpersonal Re- lations has widely influenced applied psychological re- search and, by extension, leadership research. The applica- tion of attribution theory to leadership research focuses pri- marily on two issues: The attribution of leadership from behaviors on one hand, such as Calder’s (1977) attribution theory of leadership, and the attribution of certain charac- teristics to leaders as articulated by Lord and colleagues (for an overview see Lord & Maher, 1993) on the other hand. In addition, research has examined how individuals attribute company performance to leaders (e.g., Romance of Leadership; Meindl, Ehrlich, & Dukerich, 1985). In our paper, we concentrate on the latter aspect; however, rather than focusing on general attributions of responsibility, we specifically examine attributions of mistakes to a proximal leader, that is, a direct supervisor. Our aim is to develop a model of attribution of mistakes to leaders, to derive prop- ositions for leadership research, and to explore implica- tions for practice.
According to Heider (1958), observers attribute charac- teristics to actors on the basis of the actor’s behavior. Ob- servers only use personal causality, however, when they judge that an outcome can be achieved by a person at all (intentional action). The following attribution process dif- ferentiates between internal attributions to the individual actor and external attributions to the situation (for an out- line of the distinction between personal and impersonal at- tribution, see Malle, 2008). Here, we concentrate on per- sonal causality, as this is the aspect of Heider’s attribution theory that is most prevalent in leadership research.
As outlined by Heider (1958) and Ross (1977), observ- ers tend to underestimate the importance of situational fac- tors in making causal attributions. Further, the positive- negative asymmetry effect (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Fin-
kenauer, & Vohs, 2001) suggests that negative information is considered more informative than positive information. Thus, in making attributions, negative information (such as mistakes) may be considered as particularly indicative of an individual’s enduring characteristics. This has particular relevance for the attribution of mistakes, as followers and other organizational stakeholders may assume that they de- rive more information about leaders from their mistakes than from their successes.
The attribution of mistakes is also highly relevant for organizations. In order to avoid future mistakes that may be costly, organizations need to analyze mistakes and de- termine their origin. If the attribution of mistakes, however, is incorrect, similar future mistakes cannot be avoided.
During the course of this paper, we will illustrate our model by using a hypothetical organizational example of a brewery, situated in the German town A. The brewery de- livers beer across the whole country. Daily, they produce about 10,000 bottles of beer. In order to avoid delivery problems, they maintain a small storage with a capacity of about four days worth of beer production. Especially dur- ing the summer, the daily production usually sells without problems. The factory operates in two shifts, an early shift from 5.00 to 13.00 h and an afternoon shift from 13.00 to 21.00 h. However, on rare occasions (when the demand of beer is quite high), the management introduces a night shift from 21.00 to 5.00 h. Due to legal regulations in Germany, the work council has to agree to the introduction of night shifts. In the summer of 2006, the soccer world cup took place in Germany. The management prepared for the ex- pected higher demand by doubling storage facilities. After the second round of the games, one of the essential produc- tion machines broke and had to be switched off. Because of the increased demand (Germany’s team was still in the
DOI 10.1027/1864-93184.108.40.206 © 2008 Hogrefe & Huber Pub lish ers Social Psychology 2008; Vol. 39(3):197–203
finals), beer stock quickly ran out. In this emergency situ- ation, the management introduced a night shift for a whole week and the annual leave of staff had to be called off until after the world cup. Knowing the importance of being able to supply their brand of beer and thereby gaining increased product visibility, the work council complied with the man- agement’s request. In the course of the paper, we will ana- lyze how the situation could be interpreted by employees and the resulting follower attributions.
Attribution Theory and Leadership Research
Calder (1977) was one of the first to apply attribution the- ory to leadership. He suggested that leadership itself cannot be observed; therefore, individuals must infer leadership from behavior and the consequences of that behavior. Ac- cording to Calder, in order for group members to make a leadership attribution, it is vital that leaders behave differ- ently from group members. In addition, the behavior should match expectations about typical “leader-like” behaviors. From these behaviors and their effects, leadership is then inferred (Calder, 1977). This is in line with Pfeffer’s (1977) argument that the attribution of leadership is a simplifica- tion of a complex problem: “When causality is lodged in one or a few persons rather than being a function of a com- plex set of interactions among all group members, changes can be made by replacing or influencing the occupant of the leadership position” (p. 109). Thus, Pfeffer suggests that leaders serve primarily as symbols and scapegoats rather than causal agents. Meindl’s Romance of Leadership approach (Meindl et al., 1985) takes a similar perspective. The authors posit that in order to reduce cognitive complex- ity, individuals attribute responsibility for companies’ per- formance to their leaders, rather than take into account oth- er possible factors such as the economic situation. This ten- dency is particularly pronounced when explaining extremely high or low performance. Thus observers com- mit the fundamental attribution error as they attribute the outcome to the person rather than the situation. In this case, observers perceive leaders as having more influence than they actually do. In Heider’s terms, this means that the sit- uation is not taken into account adequately when explain- ing organizational performance.
Romance of Leadership is a general tendency to attribute responsibility for success or failure to leaders. The funda- mental attribution error, in contrast, refers to the attribution of a specific behavior to a specific person’s characteristics. In terms of Romance of Leadership, the attribution of re- sponsibility for company performance to leaders serves as a cognitive simplification of the complex inference process that explains how company performance is achieved (Me- indl et al., 1985). Similarly, the attribution of mistakes to a
specific leader is a simplified explanation of the complex origin of mistakes in organizations.
Here, we relate research on Romance of Leadership and the fundamental attribution error, and examine the imme- diate attribution of mistakes at the workplace rather than company performance. According to the cognitive biases such as the fundamental attribution error, followers will tend to assume that mistakes are a function of leader char- acteristics, and thus will make an internal attribution for mistakes (Meindl et al., 1985). In our brewery example, this means that followers will attribute the fact that they have to work overtime to a mistake made by their manager (e.g., not renting enough storage, not ensuring that the ma- chine worked properly during this crucial time) rather than to the exceptional circumstances (hot summer, soccer world cup).
Moreover, the fact that followers have a certain image of the traits and behaviors of leaders will also influence their attribution processes. Hamilton (1978) argues that so- cial roles influence the attribution process because these serve as “normative contexts” (p. 321) for responsibility attribution. With respect to leaders and followers, he states: “Part of the effective contract or ‘deal’ between authorities and subordinates involves responsibility: In exchange for controlling or commanding outcomes, the authority is li- able for their consequences” (p. 324). A person’s action is consequently not judged independently of his/her social role. Hence, the perceived responsibility of leaders is gen- erally broader than those of followers, especially with re- spect to mistakes. Consequently, it is important to consider the images of leaders, or implicit leadership theories, that followers hold and how they influence the attribution of mistakes.
Implicit Leadership Theories and Cognitive Errors in Attribution
Implicit leadership theories are cognitive schemas people have of leaders in general, independent of their actual lead- er (e.g., Eden & Leviatan, 1975). The leadership prototype includes traits typically associated with leaders (Offer- mann, Kennedy, & Wirtz, 1994) and can be described as “the image that a person has of a leader in general, or of an effective leader” (Schyns & Meindl, 2005, p. 21). Once ac- tivated, implicit leadership theories serve as a lens that im- pacts cognitive processing and results in cognitive errors, including selective attention, encoding and retrieval of schema consistent information, as well as cuing schema- consistent information when such information does not ob- jectively exist (Lord & Maher, 1993; Lord, Foti, & de Va- der, 1984; Phillips & Lord, 1986).
Previous research by Lord and his colleagues (e.g., Rush, Phillips, & Lord, 1981) has deduced the existence of implicit leadership theories from cognitive errors made by
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followers: A series of experiments (e.g., Lord, Binning, Rush, & Thomas, 1978) demonstrated that observers attrib- ute leadership based on the knowledge of group perfor- mance rather than actual leadership behavior. Consequent- ly, we can expect that individuals will attribute the results of a group task to the leader rather than to any other source, such as the situation.
In addition, implicit leadership theories may have im- portant implications for followers’ expectations of leaders. In particular, as noted by Offermann et al. (1994), the char- acteristics typically associated with the word “leader” in- clude intelligence, conscientiousness, and strength. More- over, findings in the context of Romance of Leadership suggest that implicit leadership theories seem to include the notion of a heroic leader, one who is singularly responsible for the success or failure of a company. Making mistakes is inconsistent with such leadership images. Accordingly, in the following we explore what happens when leaders violate the implicit leadership theories of followers by making mistakes.
As outlined above, Lord and colleagues’ research im- plies that implicit leadership theories influence information processing and promote cognitive errors. Yet the question arises how implicit leadership theories affect attributions more specifically. Prior research has shown that implicit leadership theories, especially Romance of Leadership, in- fluence the perception of charisma (e.g., Schyns, Felfe, & Blank, 2007). Followers who have the tendency to roman- ticize leaders also tend to perceive more charisma in their actual leader (Schyns et al., 2007). As charisma is generally assessed as a positive leadership style, Romance of Lead- ership, consequently, seems to lead to a positively biased perception of leaders. This notion contradicts the general idea of Romance of Leadership that implies that leaders are made responsible for success and failure in an organiza- tional context. It should be noted that our reference to at- tribution of mistakes represents a departure from the origi- nal Romance of Leadership research in two important re- spects. First, the original research was conducted using “paper people” rather than proximal leaders. Moreover, the organizational failures in the original research were char- acterized as the total failure of an organization rather than ambiguous situations where individual biases can provide an interpretative attributional filter.
Consequently, in the context of mistakes rather than complete organizational failure, we can assume that the positive bias is stronger than the general person attribution bias. With respect to the attribution of mistakes, we can assume that a romantic view of leaders will prevent follow- ers from attributing mistakes to leaders; instead, followers will tend to assume that mistakes must be due to situational circumstances.
As Crandall, Silvia, N’Gbala, Tsang, and Dawson (2007) point out: Heider (1958) suggests that observers strive for a holistic sense of harmony in person perception. Thus, in the context of leadership, people strive to integrate their leader’s behavior, his/her characteristics and their
general impression of leaders. Consequently, the naïve ob- server assumes that good people do good things and bad people do bad things. Accordingly, making a mistake may be discounted as it does not correspond to the notion of a “good leader.” In this manner, “good leaders” may be held less responsible for mistakes than “bad leaders.”
Returning to our example, followers who romanticize leaders will attribute the fact that the brewery ran out of beer to situational factors rather than to an error on the part of their supervisor.
Proposition 1: Followers who tend to romanticize leaders are more likely to attribute mistakes to external factors (e.g., the situation) rather than to internal factors (e.g., the leader).
In addition, the extent to which leaders match followers’ implicit leadership theories has important implications for leaders and the leader-follower relationship and, subse- quently, for attributional processes. As Crandall and Beas- ley (2001) emphasize, the underlying aspect of Heider’s theory is structural balance. According to balance theory, people tend to construct images of individuals that are af- fectively balanced (see also Rudolph & von Hecker, 2006). Therefore, the causal attributions of followers with a neg- ative image of leaders in general may correspond to their perception of their actual leaders. Such leader images may be consistent with making mistakes as followers reason “bad things happen to bad people” (Crandall & Beasley, 2001, p. 79). Consequently, followers may not attribute the mistake externally, as such external attributions are incon- sistent with their negative leader images.
In leadership research, Nye and Forsyth (1991; see also, Nye, 2005; Nye, 2002) found that a match between implicit leadership theories and actual leader behavior is positively related to followers’ ratings of leader’s effectiveness. This is the case when both implicit leadership theories and ac- tual behavior are considered positive or leader-like and thus match the leadership prototype. Similarly, Epitropaki and Martin (2005) found that a correspondence between followers’ implicit leadership theories and actual leader be- havior is positively related to the relationship quality be- tween leader and follower (e.g., Leader-Member Ex- change, see Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995). Thus, congruence between followers’ implicit leadership theories and actual leader behavior is associated with a positive view of lead- ership. As a consequence, and in line with the fundamental attribution error, followers should attribute mistakes to their leader’s stable characteristics. However, consistent with Nye and Forsyth’s (1991) work, we can assume that the attribution of mistakes is influenced by prototype matching as well. Prototypical leaders are generally con- sidered to have positive characteristics (Offermann et al., 1994). Thus, in case of prototype-matching – in line with Heider’s striving for harmony in perception (Silvia et al., 2007) – mistakes may be overlooked and not attributed to the leader, implying a cognitive error (see also Lord & Ma-
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her, 1993). In order to maintain their romantic view of lead- ers, followers will disregard the schema-inconsistent infor- mation, and instead make external attributions for the mis- take. In contrast, in case of a mismatch, when leaders do not fit the romantic view of their followers, the attribution of mistakes to the leader may be more pronounced. In this case, the mistake is not inconsistent with their view of this particular leader. In other words, if a supervisor does not fit the leader schema (mismatch) then he/she is not classi- fied as a leader, and her/his mistake is consistent with the nonleader schema. In our example, if the direct supervisor matches these characteristics and his/her followers consid- er the leader to be ’leader-like’, then the followers will tend to attribute the shortage in beer supply to the situation.
Proposition 2: Prototype matching influences the attribu- tion of mistakes to a specific leader; hence, observers are less inclined to attribute mistakes to leaders who fit their leadership prototype.
Characteristics of Mistakes
It is important to recall that negative information is pro- cessed differently than positive information. Based on the positive-negative asymmetry effect, Baumeister et al. (2001) conclude that “negative information receives more processing and contributes more strongly to the final im- pression than does positive information” (p. 324). In the case of leadership, a leader’s mistakes will be regarded as more informative of the leader’s characteristics than the leader’s successes. Consequently, followers may give more weight to mistakes than successes. This may in part be due to the fact that schema-inconsistent information takes long- er to process than does schema-consistent information. As suggested previously, making mistakes is inconsistent with the leadership prototype. However, to date, research on im- plicit leadership theories has concentrated on the attribu- tion of (group) success to leaders (e.g., Lord & Maher, 1993). The extent to which the positive-negative asymme- try effect holds for leadership attributions and whether im- plicit leadership theories influence this effect is not yet known. We assume that the characteristics of the mistakes themselves (i.e., knowledge of the consequences of a mis- take and the seriousness of the relevant mistake) influence the attribution of mistakes.
As mentioned above, implicit leadership theories might act as a filter that allows mistakes to go unnoticed, and therefore not attributed to the leader. If followers expect that leaders are intelligent and heroic, making mistakes is inconsistent with the leadership prototype. Therefore, if the leadership schema is activated, followers will not attribute the mistake to the leader internally but rather to external causes. However, if the consequences of a mistake are known, a misattribution may be less likely. In our example, if the leaders’ miscalculation of the amount of beer needed
leads to longer work hours, it is difficult to ignore the caus- es of the mistake. In contrast, if the actual impact of this mistake is hard to pinpoint and the cause may be misattrib- uted easily. Thus, when the consequences of the mistake are unknown, the attribution of mistakes to external causes is more likely.
The severity of the mistake also seems important. Hol- lander (1978) suggests that, over time, leaders, through their contribution to the group, build idiosyncrasy credits with followers that allow leaders some deviation from group norms. It is possible that leaders may have enough idiosyncrasy credits to allow forgiveness for relatively be- nign mistakes. Alternatively, followers may be motivated to attribute mistakes to external factors in order to keep their image of the flawless leader intact (e.g., Lipman-Blu- men, 2007). However, if the mistake is severe, such as the failure of the company, it seems likely that leaders will be held accountable for their mistakes as it is unlikely that they have enough idiosyncrasy credits for such a substantial withdrawal. Further, the defensive attribution hypothesis (e.g., Walster, 1966) suggests that observers attribute more responsibility for accidents that produce severe conse- quences. This is in line with Meindl et al.’s (1985) Ro- mance of Leadership approach, stating that leaders are held responsible for company performance not only in times of very good but also in times of very bad company perfor- mance. Therefore, followers may judge such leaders harsh- ly as they violated their implicit leadership theories. They may reason that “a real leader would have protected us and could have prevented such catastrophic outcomes.” In our example, should the brewery go bankrupt, despite the mea- sures taken by the management, followers would be more inclined to blame their leader rather than the circumstances.
Proposition 3: Implicit leadership theories and prototype matching affect the attribution of mistakes to a specific leader in that there is a tendency to attribute mistakes to the situation. This effect is more pronounced for mistakes with unknown or serious consequences.
A recent study by Campbell and Swift (2006, see also Swift & Campbell, 1995) examined the attribution styles of lead- ers and followers concerning follower performance, rather than leader performance, using the Leader-Member Ex- change approach (LMX, e.g., Dansereau, Graen, & Haga, 1975). LMX differentiates between an “in-group” and an “out-group” of followers. In-group members are those fol- lowers with whom the leader develops “mutual trust, re- spect and commitment” (Graen, 2003, p. 155). In contrast, interactions with out-group members remain on a contrac- tual level (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995).
Campbell and Swift (2006) argue that in-group members are often more similar to their leaders than out-group mem-
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bers; hence, they may show similar attributional styles. Whereas observers usually make attribution errors classi- fied as the fundamental attribution error (Ross, 1977), in- dicating that behavior is attributed to internal rather than external causes, actors tend to explain their own behavior using the self-serving bias, thus tending to attribute their behavior to external rather than internal factors (actor-ob- server bias).
Analogous to Campbell & Swift (2006), we argue that the attribution of mistakes is similar for leaders and in- group members. Specifically, due to their close relationship with leaders, the causal attributions of in-group members may be more likely to reflect self-serving biases than the fundamental attribution error. In-group members will, con- sequently, attribute leader mistakes to external factors rath- er than internal factors. Out-group members, in contrast, will attribute mistakes to the leader. Thus, in the brewery example, followers who enjoy a good relationship quality with their leader may be more inclined to attribute the mis- take to the situation, whereas followers with a more tradi- tional, contractual relationship to their leader will tend to blame the leader him-/herself.
Proposition 4: High LMX followers (in-group) will offer external attributions for a leader’s mistakes while low LMX followers (out-group) will attribute mistakes to the leader.
Summary and Conclusion
In this paper, we outlined a model of the attribution of mistakes to leaders. This model is summarized in Figure 1. We argued that the processes leading from the occur- rence of a mistake to the causal attribution to the leader
or the situation is influenced by (1) followers’ tendency to romanticize leaders in general (Romance of Leader- ship), and (2) the match between followers’ prototypes and their actual leader. Furthermore, characteristics of mistakes are important in this process, such as the serious- ness of, and knowledge about, the consequences of the mistakes. These factors may influence the nature of the attribution (e.g., internal or external) and also interact with implicit leadership theories and prototype matching. The violation of implicit leadership theories by making serious mistakes with known consequences s increases the likelihood of attributing mistakes to the leader. In terms of the relationship between leader and follower, the in- group or the out-group status of followers affects the at- tribution process: In-group members will tend to make ex- ternal attributions whereas out-group members will tend to make internal attributions.
To our knowledge, the interaction between implicit lead- ership theories, social cognition, attribution theory, and the Romance of Leadership is a unique characteristic of our model. Based on our theoretical analysis, we assume that a variety of factors will determine whether followers attrib- ute leader mistakes to internal or external factors, including implicit leadership theories, prototype matching, character- istics of mistakes, and Leader-Member Exchange.
It is important to note that the nature of the attribution (e.g., internal or external) does not necessarily reflect the actual cause of the mistake. Accordingly, more needs to be said about the conditions under which the attribution is ac- tually correct or not. Applying attribution theories to the specific attributions of mistakes to proximal leaders raises many questions for further research. In the present context, we proposed several factors determining the attributions of leaders’ mistakes to either the person or the situation. Sim- ilar to prior research on the perception of leadership (e.g.,
Figure 1. Model of attribution of mis- takes.
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Felfe & Schyns, 2006), our assumptions should be tested experimentally by 1. Providing descriptions of organizational situations (such
as our brewery example), 2. Varying the outcomes of mistakes (known versus un-
known, serious versus minor), and 3. Asking participants about their implicit leadership theo-
ries and their attributions.
Similar studies should be conducted in field settings, using actual mistakes and analyzing the impact of participants’ implicit leadership theories and LMX status (in- versus out- group).
In addition, assumptions about the conditions promoting biased attributions need to be refined, for example, by tak- ing into account Kelley’s covariance principle (Kelley, 1969; see also Kelly & Michela, 1980). Kelley (1969) an- alyzed the conditions under which behavior is attributed to the person rather than the situation. Thus, when making attributions toward the person, observers analyze the dis- tinctiveness of an effect across targets, the consensus across actors, and the consistency of an effect across points in time (e.g., see Försterling & Rudolph, 1988). If, for example, the supervisor had made similar miscalculations under differ- ent circumstances and his/her predecessor did not make them, followers would tend to attribute the present situation to the leader rather than the circumstances.
The attribution of mistakes to leaders or the situation has relevance for organizational practice. For companies, it is important to detect the actual reasons for mistakes in order to be able to take actions against future mistakes. Different (mis-)attributions to leaders or the situation can have man- ifold effects: Mistakes may not be made public in efforts to protect the leader. This makes it more difficult to avoid future mistakes. Conversely, more skeptical followers may be less willing to “go the extra mile” for their leader, there- fore compromising actual performance. These followers will also evaluate the leader less positively than more “ro- mantic” followers will. This, along with other research on the perception of leadership (Schyns, in press; Schyns & Felfe, 2006; Hansbrough, submitted) questions the reliabil- ity of follower ratings of leaders, for example, when used in 360 degree feedback.
To date, most research in this area has focused on the attribution of group success to leaders. Conversely, the pre- sent paper provides a contribution to the literature by con- sidering what factors may influence the attribution of mis- takes to leaders. It seems likely that the nature of the attri- bution depends on a variety of factors including the extent to which followers harbor romantic leader images, whether leaders match followers’ implicit leadership theories, the characteristics of the mistake and even the leader-follower
relationship. The nature of these attributions may deter- mine whether leaders are able to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of their followers. Here, we have developed an initial framework and generate propositions that provide the foun- dation for future empirical work.
The authors wish to thank the participants of the 6th Lead- ership Meeting 2007 in Aachen, Germany, Hartmut Blank as well as the anonymous reviewers and the editor, Udo Rudolph, for their helpful comments on a draft of this pa- per.
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Dr. Birgit Schyns
University of Portsmouth Portsmouth Business School Richmond Building Portland Street Portsmouth, PO1 3DE UK Tel. +44 23 9284-4664 E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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