Everything about yourself affects how you see things in your day to day life. Your beliefs, your attitudes, your experiences all shift your point of view in a way that is specific to you. This can sometimes be a good thing, as a different perspective on a topic or task can allow group members to find multiple solutions. However, it can be negative if your perception of things begins to cloud your judgement or is severely altered from what it should be. While you do have some degree of control over your own perception and attribution towards things-usually by making a conscious effort to take a second look-you cannot control the perception and attribution of others.
The concepts of perception and attribution are things we encounter every day without realizing it. You normally don't actively think about why you interpreted something the way you did, just the interpretation and how it pertains to the situation at hand. In a working environment, they can make significant differences in how things are done individually and in groups. For business in general it plays a massive role from a marketing and public relations standpoint, as many businesses try to present themselves so that potential customers will perceive them in a certain way. In regards to a business' organizational behavior, it can shape multiple different aspects and impact the tone of the workplace even if the source is a single person.
This article will take a closer look at what roles perception and attribution play in organizational behavior. Both concepts will be defined, with additional discussion on attribution theory as it pertains to business. You will also learn what you can do to prevent any adverse effects of perception and attribution from affecting your business, and what options are available when there is an effect.
Perception is simply defined as how a person sees the world around them and how they interpret that information. It's a subconscious things that the mind does and is contingent on your ability to pay attention to your surroundings and your existing knowledge.1 The mind will occasionally filter information out, which is why you don't notice every single thing around you; it would be a complete information overload otherwise.
In organizational behavior and business, perception often helps shape a person's personality and how they act in certain situations. These can affect how they respond to certain things-like stressful situations-their performance at tasks, and even their creativity.2 For management, paying attention to personality traits in employees can help them determine the person's work ethic and strengths. That is, if the manager's perception is not hindered in some way. In most cases, the root cause of perception problems can be linked to one particular issue:
- Perception vs. Reality-It's safe to say that not everyone in a group of people are guaranteed to perceive something in the exact same way, but they all tend to have some similar views that are based in reality. Right? Strangely enough some people's perception is rather off on certain subjects or situations, and not in a way that is suggestive of some kind of neurological condition either. In the workplace, this difference between perception and reality can be problematic if it interferes with a person's work. Things like a person's job satisfaction, communication with others, relationships with their peers, and what tasks or responsibilities they have be affected.3 What members of management think for any of those areas might not match with what the employees think-both of which may be different from the actual truth. An example may be how long it takes to do a task; a supervisor thinks it will only take 10 minutes while the employee thinks it'll be closer to 20 minutes. Both may be right in their own regard-their estimations are based on how long it's taken them to do it in the past-but the person actually doing the task may be more realistic in their estimation based on their knowledge of the situation.
Things like ego and attitude can also warp a person's perception in a situation from reality. Those aspects of a person's personality can make it rather hard for others to work with them, affecting their workplace relationships in addition to their performance. Another example of perception vs. reality would be an employee who thinks that they've done more than enough work to earn a promotion. However, their supervisor knows they've barely made a dent in the workload of their current position, let alone enough to justify a move up. In such cases, it's more than just a difference in opinion and it can be disruptive to the overall environment of the workplace and the business' organizational behavior.
Attribution is what happens when a person takes the information they perceived and determines a reason as to what happened. What you attribute things like success to depends on your own perception and behaviors, which may be wrong due to being unrealistic or having the incorrect information for the situation. Things like bias and misconceptions can cloud that reasoning, which can interfere with a person's proficiency in the workplace and may contribute to issues with diversity.
One of the concepts used in organizational behavior to help improve perception and attribution is attribution theory. The theory was first brought forth by psychologist Fritz Heider in the 1950s and stated that people had a desire to explain the reasoning behind their actions and the actions of others.4 It was expanded upon over the years by fellow psychologists Bernard Weiner and Harold Kelley, both of whom looked at the factors in a person's life that can impact their perception and their validity. They also looked at what impact certain attributions can have when a person acts upon them. Today, the theory is used to help people explain the causes behind human behaviors and largely make sense of them.5
In business, attribution theory is applicable to the members of a business' management team more so than it is to the standard employees. Managers are responsible for interpreting behavior and actions throughout the business to ensure that things are remaining as they should be and to keep an eye out for problems. If they make mistakes in their perceptions and attributions-or they are otherwise clouded by their own bias-then that can reflect throughout the company more so than if they were a regular employee. This is because it's the management staff that are the primary decision makers in the business' daily operations, and their power in the business gives them more control over it.
Errors in their judgement and interpretation of things could end up wasting time and money for the business and could hurt the business' bottom line. It can also disrupt organizational behavior, as employees themselves could interpret management's response as hostile or incompetent. In some cases, an employee whose behavior is being misattributed by their supervisor and is being unjustly punished for it may feel like they are being singled out or victimized at work. As a result, their interactions with their supervisor and peers may become negative-especially if they do not feel like their co-workers are defending them or are even supporting the supervisor's views of them. Their work could undoubtedly suffer, as the punishments may infringe upon their allotted work time and decrease their production rate (which may result in more punishments). The same can occur if an employee is being unjustly rewarded for work or accomplishments that are not theirs to claim. The responsible party may feel like this is an ethics violation between co-workers, or they may receive some punishment when they come forward to claim their work because management doesn't believe them.
Managing Effects on Your Business
The effects that perception and attribution have on a business and its organizational behavior can be both positive and negative. The difference in outcome tends to rely on the people in the business and the responses towards their actions. There are also other additional factors-again, the industry, size, and location of the business-that may influence the effect of perception and attribution in the work environment. However, there is some degree of control that a business has over the effects and use them to their advantage.
- Perceptions into Motivation-Taking perceptions and attributions and using them to influence the motivations of the business can be one way of using the concepts to your advantage. If an employee is perceiving something in the workplace as discouraging, modifying that thing in some way will alter how they perceive it to some degree. This does require management to apply attribution theory and figure out what is discouraging motivation and how that can be changed. If an employee is perceiving their supervisor's responses to their work as disappointment-even if it's not-and is being discouraged, then the supervisor may simply need to be clearer with their response.
- Reinforcing, Modifying Policies-The policies that formulate a business' workplace culture may be affecting the perceptions and attributions of those working there. This can be especially true if enforcement is lax, or if the policies are unnecessarily complex. Employees could develop their own view of how things are handled in the business that is different from what the business owners' have, simply because of how things are conducted daily. Making adjustments to how policies are handled, or even adjusting the policies themselves, can help bring perceptions close to the truth and help prevent problems. In such instances, getting feedback from employees (and customers!) could help management pinpoint any troubling policies before they begin to cause serious issues.
- Management Styles-As stated previously, perception and attribution has a heavy effect on the members of a business' management team. Their perception of things, and the employees' perception of them, can be influenced or controlled through their management style.6 This is mostly their own work ethic and their approach to things at work. Managers may have to take stock of their management style in order to get a clear picture of how their employees-and their own supervisors-interpret their actions at work. Keep in mind that there may be more than one interpretation to the things that they do, especially since people are not going to have a universal viewpoint. For example, detail-oriented managers may come across as nit-picky and distrusting or cautious and thorough, depending on the interpretation. A management style that consistently generates a negative perception from employees may result in that manager being seen in an equally negative light, impacting the intrapersonal relations between staff members. This is another instances where being open to feedback can help.
- Discourage Assumptions-The old adage about assuming can come to be true if it regularly warps people's perceptions at work. Things like bias, conflicting personalities, and stereotypes can cause a person to misinterpret something through perception and attribution.7 An example would be that someone who introverted or quiet is anti-social or not open to working as a team. In some cases the position or job title that a person has may cause others to make assumptions about them, thereby clouding any perceptions that they may have of that person later on. When there's a hierarchy of power involved, this can be amplified as those further up the chain of command make assumptions about those further down because of their junior status. Discouraging those assumptions from being paraded as fact can help ease some misconceptions that develop in the workplace.
- Enforcing Neutrality-Making the effort to enforce neutrality in the working environment can help reduce any of the other issues associated with perception and attribution discussed elsewhere in this article. Actions that minimize bias can make it easier for co-workers to collaborate on projects and can help prevent unnecessary hostility in the office.8 As mentioned previously, things like bias and stereotypes can distort people perceptions. Businesses can enforce it by encouraging staff to focus on the task(s) at hand and by blocking out distractions. When conflict develops as a result of perception and attribution, having a neutral party step in to act as a moderator can also help.