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Attribution Training

A client recently described to me her frustration with a chronically tardy worker. The employee performed well in most aspects of her job, but she was routinely late for work. Like many organizations, this company issues workers points, or demerits, each time they're late or have an unexcused absence. This particular employee was nearing the limit of points allowed and was facing certain termination. Why, wondered her manager, did the employee ignore the warnings and continue to put her job at risk?

I've written before about our tendency to hold external factors accountable for our own bad behavior (I'm late because traffic was really slow this morning) while crediting internal factors for our good behavior (I landed the account because of my tenacity). What if, instead of relying on punishments, we could influence worker actions by changing the way they attribute their own behavior?

In the 1970s, researchers Richard Miller, Philip Brickman, and Diana Bolen tested that concept with a group of fifth graders. They visited a classroom and, just before teachers dismissed students for recess, passed out pieces of candy wrapped in plastic. Once the students left for the playground, the researchers looked for the candy wrappers. Not surprisingly, they found more wrappers on the floor than in the wastebasket.

The experiment continued during the next two weeks, with grownups at the school provided comments to make to the students. For instance, the principal stopped by and said something along the lines of, "What a neat classroom. You must all be very neat students." One evening the custodian left a note on the blackboard, which read, "This is the neatest class in school. You must be very neat and clean students." And the teacher made similar comments, all with the same message, "You must be very neat students who really care about their room."

Two weeks later, the researchers returned, again with candy and right before recess. But this time when they counted the wrappers, they found a lot more in the wastebasket. Simply by providing students with the attribute "I'm a neat kid," the researchers were able to alter their littering behavior.

Of course, rewarding the kids for not littering, or punishing them when they did, might have also influenced in their behavior. To compare those options, Miller, Brickman, and Bolen studied the math achievements of second graders. They gave teachers preplanned scripts for individual students. Some students received attribution training (You work hard and seem to know your math assignments very well). Some received persuasion (Try harder, you should be getting better grades in math). And others received reinforcement (I'm proud of you and pleased with your progress). After eight days, students who received attribution training scored one to two test points higher (out of twenty) than those receiving persuasion and reinforcement.

When you're trying to change employee behavior, keep this in mind: Rewards and punishments are external factors and, as such, they prevent workers from forming the internal attributions that bring about the behavior that you're attempting to encourage. Try attribution training instead.

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