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Attributional comparisons across biases and leader-member exchange status.

Leadership is a phenomenon involving a leader, a follower, and the relationship between the two (Graen and Uhl-Bien, 1995). Two theories that address the relational nature of leadership in organizational settings are attribution theory (Green and Mitchell, 1979) and leader-member exchange (LMX) theory (Dansereau et al., 1975). Attribution theory asserts that people continuously attempt to develop causal explanations for events experienced by themselves (Kelley, 1967) and others (Kelley and Michela, 1980), and that the resulting perception of causality influences future behavior (Abramson et al., 1978; Campbell and Martinko, 1998; Sabini et al., 2001). LMX theory suggests that supervisors develop high quality "in-group" exchanges with some subordinates and develop low quality "out-group" exchanges with other subordinates (Dansereau et al., 1975). The quality of the exchange relationship is related to positive outcomes for in-group members (Vecchio and Gobdel, 1984) and negative outcomes for out-group members (Tanner et al. 1993).

With respect to attributions, an important issue is the target of the attribution, or the person about whose behavior an attribution is made, in that there are asymmetries in attributions one makes about oneself and others (Weary et al., 1989). The self-serving bias, for example, is the tendency for individuals to take credit for their successes and to blame situational factors for their failures (Kelley, 1967), while the actor-observer bias is the tendency to attribute one's own performance to situational factors and to attribute others' performance to internal factors (Jones and Nisbett, 1972; Martinko and Douglas, 1999).

Findings regarding these two biases are robust (Wilson and Levine, 1997); however, a comparison of the self-serving and actor-observer biases indicates a contradiction in the attributions expected when performance is positive (Martinko and Gardner, 1987). The self-serving bias predicts that an actor will make an internal attribution for his or her positive performance, while the actor-observer bias predicts that an actor will make an external attribution for his or her positive performance. Although numerous studies provide support for the occurrence of the actor-observer bias in negative performance situations (cf., Bernardin, 1989; Jundt and Hinsz, 2002), there has been little examination of the actor-observer bias when performance is good, providing little evidence to resolve the contradiction in predictions between the self-serving and actor-observer biases.

Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory (Dansereau et al., 1975) may help to resolve this contradiction, in that leaders may be more likely to make attributions for in-group members' performance that are similar to attributions that they would make for their own. In other words, the self-serving bias may extend from leaders to their in-group followers (Davis and Gardner, 2004). Simultaneously, leaders' attributions for out-group members may still be subject to the actor-observer bias.

The purpose of this study was to explore the relationship of LMX status with the self-serving and actor-observer biases. Two additional goals of the current study were to obtain both the leader's and the member's point of view about LMX status and to examine both positive and negative performance incidents. The following section summarizes the research related to attributional biases and details how leader-member exchange theory may assist in resolving the contradictory predictions inherent in the self-serving and actor-observer biases. A survey study exploring attributional biases on the basis of LMX status is then described, and the results and their implications are then discussed.

CONCEPTUAL BACKGROUND

The foundational assumption of attribution theory is that people engage in cognitive activity, developing explanations for events (Kelley, 1967). The resulting attributions can be classified by their presumed locus of causality, either internal (ability and effort) or external (task difficulty and luck) to the actor (Weiner et al., 1971). Dyadic relationships are a primary focus in attribution theory (Heider, 1958), and Green and Mitchell (1979) specifically address the leader-member dyad in their suggestion that leaders' perceptions of the cause of followers' behavior influence the leaders' future behaviors. Subsequent research has upheld this prediction (Gibson and Schroeder, 2003; Swift and Campbell, 1998).

The attribution process, however, is not completely objective, as biases can occur. One such bias is the self-serving bias (Kelley, 1967), which occurs when actors take credit for their success and blame situational factors for their failure (McAllister et al., 2002; Miller and Ross, 1975). This bias extends to cross-cultural work relationships (Peterson et al., 2002). In the actor-observer bias, actors make internal attributions for others' performance and external attributions for their own performance (Floyd, 2000; Jones and Nisbett, 1972). The focus of exploration of the actor-observer bias in work settings, though, has primarily been on poor performance (Bernardin, 1989; Martinko and Gardner, 1987; Nelson and Beggan, 2004). In addition, the attributions that have been examined in these studies have not been consistent across studies, making comparisons of results difficult.

The previously-mentioned contradiction in predicted attributions under these biases may be resolved by Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory, with its supposition that leaders do not relate to all members in the same manner (Dansereau et al., 1975). Subordinates with whom leaders have high-quality relationships are known as "in-group" members, while subordinates with whom leaders have lower quality relationships are known as "out-group" members (Dansereau et al., 1975). The results of relationship quality are generally positive for in-group members (Erdogan and Liden, 2002) and negative for outgroup members (Duval and Silvia, 2002; Vecchio and Gobdel, 1984).

One positive outcome for in-group members is the attributions that their supervisors make about them. A few prior studies have explored supervisor attributions when subordinate performance is positive, consistently finding that supervisors were more likely to make internal attributions for the effective performance of their in-group subordinates and to make internal attributions for the ineffective performance of their out-group subordinates (Gibson and Schroeder, 2003; Heneman et al., 1989; Swift and Campbell, 1998). However, all of these studies compared supervisor attributions across LMX status (i.e., "in" versus "out") but not within groups (i.e., "in" positive performance compared to "in" negative performance), thus their data do not permit an evaluation of attributional biases.

In-group dyads are expected to have "shared conceptions of their environments" (Scandura et al., 1986: 580). Schneider's Attraction-Selection-Attrition (ASA) theory argues that similarity, or homogeneity, on psychological attributes attracts people to others by reducing the psychological distance between individuals (Schneider, 1987). In fact, people who sense that they do not fit the group will leave the organization (Pendergrass, 2002). LMX status, therefore, as a psychological attribute, may result in reduced psychological distance for in-group dyads and greater psychological distance for out-group dyads. This implies that supervisors may make attributions about in-group members that are more like self-target attributions and may make attributions about out-group members that are more like other-target attributions. If both in-group supervisors and in-group subordinates are making self-target types of attributions, we would expect in these dyads to see both leaders and members displaying the self-serving bias when making attributions about in-group members' work performance. This expectation is reflected in the following hypotheses:

H1. When performance is positive, supervisors will make greater internal than external attributions for in-group subordinate performance.

H2: When performance is negative, supervisors will make greater external than internal attributions for in-group subordinate performance.

H3: In-group subordinates will make greater internal than external attributions for their own positive performance.

H4: In-group subordinates will make greater external than internal attributions for their own negative performance.

These hypothesized relationships are diagrammed in Figure I, illustrating our expectation that supervisors and subordinates would demonstrate the same attributional pattern when explaining the positive and negative performance of in-group subordinates.

A different situation occurs when supervisors and subordinates are not psychologically similar to each other (Schneider, 1987), a phenomenon associated with differing perspectives on workplace occurrences, as in the actor-observer bias. Therefore, from the supervisor's perspective, we expected evidence of the actor-observer bias, such that supervisors, as observers, would make internal attributions for both positive and negative out-group subordinate performance, as stated in the following hypotheses:

H5: When performance is positive, supervisors will make greater internal than external attributions for out-group subordinate performance.

H6: When performance is negative, supervisors will make greater internal than external attributions for out-group subordinate performance.

Because of their psychological distance from their supervisors, we expected evidence of the actor-observer bias such that subordinates, as the actor, would make external attributions for both their positive and negative performance, as stated in the following hypotheses:

H7: Out-group subordinates will make greater external than internal attributions for their own positive performance.

H8: Out-group subordinates will make greater external than internal attributions for their own negative performance.

Thus, as Figure I illustrates, we anticipated that supervisors and out-group subordinates would demonstrate directly opposite attributional patterns when explaining the positive and negative performance of out-group subordinates.

METHOD

Participants

We mailed surveys to the home addresses of employees in the southeastern region of an international retail organization, with the assurance that participation was voluntary and confidential. Respondents completed the questionnaire and returned it directly to the researchers. Two hundred eighty (280) of 868 surveys were returned for a return rate of 32%, with 229 responses from subordinates and 51 responses from supervisors. However, supervisors rated as many as three subordinates, resulting in 135 supervisor responses. The super visor group was primarily male (80%) and Caucasian (87%), as was the subordinate group (79% male; 84% Caucasian).

Measures

Leader-Member Exchange Quality. Subordinates completed the LMX-7 (Graen et al., 1982), a commonly-used, psychometrically sound (Gerstner and Day, 1997) scale measuring subordinates' perceptions of their LMX status. The items, such as, "My supervisor understands my problems and needs" are rated on a scale from 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 7 (Strongly Agree), and final scores are calculated by averaging the seven items. Supervisors completed a parallel Supervisor LMX scale (SLMX-7; Scandura and Schriesheim, 1994), which re-words the LMX-7 questions from the supervisor's perspective. For example, supervisors rated the statement, "I understand his/her problems and needs" on the same 1 to 7 scale, with overall scores also averaged.

Performance Incident. Respondents evaluated a positive and a negative incident of subordinate performance. To ensure that the incidents evaluated were plausible, they were developed by high-level managers in the participating organization consistent with common occurrences in their organization. The managers who developed the incidents did not participate further in the study.

For the positive incident, subordinates were asked to suppose that they were assisting a retail customer who entered the store displeased with a previous purchase, but who ended up making a larger purchase. For the negative incident, subordinates were asked to suppose that one of their customers was so dissatisfied with the subordinates' assistance that the customer complained to the store manager. Thus, subordinates were asked to imagine themselves in the situation and evaluate their own behavior. Positive incidents were presented first.

Supervisors were first asked to list all of their direct reports. Supervisors were then asked to evaluate the first person listed, Person 1. They did so by completing the LMX measure described above with respect to Person 1. Next, the supervisor was asked to imagine and evaluate Person 1 in the same positive scenario described above, assisting a dissatisfied customer who ends up making a larger purchase. Finally, the supervisor was asked to imagine and evaluate Person 1 in the same negative scenario described above, in which a dissatisfied customer complains about the subordinate. In an effort to have supervisors rate randomly-selected subordinates, the supervisor was then asked to complete the same information for the third person on their list of direct reports and for the last person on their list of direct reports. Supervisors evaluated the positive incident first for each subordinate. To determine whether supervisors displayed a bias in rating all subordinates consistently with each other, we conducted an ANOVA to compare mean scores for LMX and attributions across the three respondents that supervisors rated. The finding of significant differences in supervisors' internal attributions for the effective performance of the first person they rated compared with the others suggests that supervisors distinguished among subordinates in their responses ([F.sub.2, 129] = p < .01).

Attributions. For the positive event described above, subordinates were asked to evaluate, on a scale from (1) --Strongly Disagree to (7)--Strongly Agree, the extent to which their performance was due to ability, effort, ease of the task, or luck (Weiner et al., 1971). Subordinates evaluated the same factors for the negative incident. Similarly, supervisors were asked to evaluate the extent to which the subordinate's positive or negative performance was due to the same factors: ability, effort, ease of task, or luck.

Analyses

We conducted an Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) to investigate whether there was a significant difference between supervisors' and subordinates' LMX scores. Finding no significant difference ([F.sub.1.350] = 1.86, p > .05), we combined supervisor and subordinate LMX scores for further analyses. The Cronbach alpha reliability for the LMX scales was .92.

Following the procedure used by Tanner and Castleberry (1990), we trichotomized the LMX scores to obtain an in-group, a middle-group, and an out-group. Data from the middle group were not analyzed further, resulting in the following four groups which were compared using paired sample t-tests:

Group I: Supervisors responding to in-group subordinates' performance (n = 40).

Group II: In-group subordinates responding to their own performance (n = 80).

Group III: Supervisors responding to out-group subordinates' performance (n = 38).

Group IV: Out-group subordinates responding to their own performance (n = 76).

RESULTS

The results indicated mixed support for the hypotheses, with the self-serving bias receiving strong support and the actor-observer bias receiving support when supervisors make attributions about out-group subordinates. Basic statistics and correlations among the variables for all respondents are presented in Table 1. To examine relationships among the two internal attributions (i.e., ability and effort) and the two external attributions (i.e., task ease/difficulty and luck), a principal components factor analysis was conducted on the four attributions, first for the positive incident and then for the negative. For the positive performance incident, as shown in the factor loadings in Table 2, a clear internal attribution factor and a clear external attribution factor emerged. We labeled the factor comprised of ability and effort "Internal Positive," and averaged scores on these two attributions to form a measure of internal attributions for the positive incident. The reliability for this factor was .73. We labeled the factor comprised of task difficulty and luck "External Positive," and averaged the scores on these two attributions to form a measure of external attributions for the positive incident. The reliability for External Positive was also .73.

For the negative performance incident, as shown in the factor loadings reported in Table 3, two factors emerged. Again, the two internal attributions loaded on one factor; however, one external attribution, task difficulty, also loaded with the two internal attributions. Accordingly, we averaged all three attributions to form a scale and, because two of the three attributions in the scale were internal, we termed the scale "Internal Negative." The reliability for the scale was .70. The "luck " attribution was the only component that loaded on the second factor; therefore, we labeled the factor "Bad Luck."

Mean scores for all four groups and results of the hypothesis tests are shown in Figure II. Paired t-tests of the first hypothesis indicated that it was supported (t = 10.48, p < .001). Supervisors' attributions for in-group subordinates' positive performance were more likely to be internal than external. The second hypothesis, suggesting that supervisors will make more external than internal attributions for in-group subordinates' negative performance, was also supported (t = 3.37, p < .01), providing evidence that supervisors' attributions about the positive and negative performance of their in-group subordinates are consistent with the self-serving bias. As predicted, supervisors are likely to make internal attributions for in-group subordinates' positive performance and to make external attributions for in-group subordinates' negative performance.

The third hypothesis was also supported, indicating that in-group subordinates also are more likely to make internal than external attributions for their own positive performance (t = 12.35, p < .001). The fourth hypothesis, suggesting that in-group subordinates would make more external than internal attributions for their own negative performance, was not supported (t = 1.61). This surprising finding suggests that in-group subordinates are not making external attributions for their negative performance.

There was no significant difference in the internal and external attributions that supervisors make for the out-group's positive performance, and thus the fifth hypothesis was not supported (t = .71). This outcome is surprisingly negative in its implications for out-group members, in that it suggests that out-group subordinates are receiving even less credit for their positive performance from their supervisors than would be predicted under either the self-serving or the actor-observer bias. The sixth hypothesis, which suggested that supervisors would make internal attributions for out-group subordinates' negative performance was supported, consistent with the outcome that would be predicted under the actor-observer bias (t = -2.01, p = .05).

With respect to predicted attributions by out-group subordinates and the actor-observer bias, there was no evidence to support its occurrence. To the contrary, the evidence supports the existence of the self-serving bias. Hypothesis 7 suggested, based on the actor-observer bias, that subordinates would attribute their positive performance to external factors. The result of the hypothesis test was significant, but in the opposite direction from the predicted one (t = 7.85, p < .001). Thus, the result that out-group members are more likely to make internal than external attributions for their positive performance supports the presence of the self-serving bias, rather than the actor-observer bias. The eighth hypothesis that out-group members would make external attributions for their negative performance was supported (t = 2.18, p < .05). However, the predicted outcome for this situation under both biases would be the same; therefore, this result does not distinguish between the two biases.

DISCUSSION

Although not all outcomes of the study were as predicted, the interpretation of the outcomes is relatively straightforward. The results of the current study indicate fairly strong support for the existence of the self-serving bias in three of the four situations explored. Specifically, there was evidence for the occurrence of the self-serving bias when supervisors made attributions for the performance of their in-group subordinates and when both in- and out-group subordinates made attributions about their own performance. The results provided some support for the presence of the actor-observer bias when supervisors made attributions about the performance of their out-group subordinates.

Consistent with prior research, these results provide yet further evidence for the positive outcomes associated with in-group status, in that in-group members are being credited with their effective performance and not blamed for their ineffective performance. These results are supportive of Schneider's ASA theory in terms of indicating psychological closeness within the in-group, as discovered by Warr and Pearce (2004).

With respect to attributions that supervisors make about the performance of out-group members, though, the results of this study were more negative than expected. Not only are out-group members being blamed by their supervisors for their poor performance in the form of internal attributions, but their supervisors are also not giving them credit for their positive performance in the form of internal attributions. This result is contrary to, and more negative than, the predictions made by either the self-serving or the actor-observer biases. This result appears to provide strong support for the Attraction-Selection-Attrition proposition that supervisors perceive their out-group subordinates to be psychologically distant from them. It may also be indicative of differing supervisor and subordinate expectations regarding employee responsibilities, in that supervisors are expecting subordinates to exhibit greater levels of initiative, while subordinates do not view this as part of the psychological contract of the job (Boswell et al., 2001).

The fact that task difficulty, an external attribution, loaded with the internal attributions of effort and ability in the factor analysis of the negative event makes the interpretation of these results less straightforward, in that it is not clear the extent to which the external attribution impacted the results. Nonetheless, because the sole external attribution factor for negative events was Bad Luck, it is clear that supervisors were more likely to attribute in-group members' poor performance to bad luck, while they were more likely to attribute out-group members' poor performance to the other factor. Thus, although we are unable to say with precision the extent to which the external attribution of task difficulty was a part of that attribution, it is clear that supervisors are more generous in their attributions for the negative performance of in-group than of out-group members.

The findings have major implications for managers in evaluating the performance of subordinates. If managers blame their out-group subordinates for poor performance, the poor performance may become a serf-fulfilling prophecy. This is particularly true, if, as determined by this study, the managers are not crediting these individuals for their positive performance. If a leader differentiates severely, some members are likely to become alienated from the organization and the job (Sparrowe and Liden, 1997). Thus, it is essential that managers be aware of their own tendencies to credit and blame both in-group and out-group subordinates. In fact, companies should conduct training for organizational leaders to increase their awareness of these biases.

As indicated above, if subordinates do become alienated from the organization or job, this could lead to severe difficulties for the organization. These difficulties involve the outgroup members themselves, who are likely to experience lowered job commitment and a decreased sense of empowerment, further lessening their initiative and demonstration of organizational citizenship behaviors (Erdogen and Liden, 2002). Supervisors may also be affected, in that out-group members tend to make lower evaluations of their supervisor's effectiveness (Deluga, 1998). The organization itself may be affected by lowered job performance among alienated employees (Gerstner and Day, 1997).

Another managerial implication of the findings is that of diversity in the organization. If, in fact, out-group subordinates become alienated, they may tend to leave the organization, resulting in more of the subordinates being in-group members. This could lead to homogeneity of people in the organization. However, diverse members of the organization are in a position to bring unique resources to the work unit, such as differing cultural backgrounds and life experiences, which could enhance decision making in the organization by increasing the scope and variety of perspectives presented (Richard and Johnson, 2001).

All of these issues point to the need to better understand the implications of the LMX relationship in the organization. If managers tend to select those who are like them (potential in-group members), these individuals will "fit" the organization. If they fail to "fit," they leave. However, one could argue that homogeneity can be dangerous for the organization, as over-homogenization has been associated with organizational failure (Schneider and Goldstein, 1995).

A limitation in the current study is the predominantly male sample. Typically, women tend to attribute their failure to internal causes, while men attribute their failure to external causes (Petiprin and Johnson, 1991) ; therefore, the results could be influenced by a predisposition to make certain types of attributions based on gender. A second limitation is that the presentation order for the positive and negative events was not counterbalanced; thus, responses to the negative event may have been influenced by responses to the positive event. In future studies, a suggestion would be to alternate the positioning of each of these events randomly for the participants. A third limitation in the current study is the fact that the external attribution of task difficulty loaded with the internal attributions for negative events, making interpretation of this factor difficult. Further exploration of the relationship among the attributions for negative performance would be useful.

Another avenue for future research is to study the level of these dyads in the organization. Gibson and Schroeder (2003) found that particularly in tall organizations, upper-level managers tend to be held to a higher standard in that they receive more blame than credit for their behavior. Conversely, lower-level managers get more credit than blame. Thus, a future study should try to determine whether the degree of blame or credit changes depending on the level of the individual in the organization.

Another area of interest in future studies would be to compare the attributions made by supervisors who are matched with their actual subordinates. It would be of interest to examine the level of convergence in attributions within matched pairs when the pairs are in-groups versus when they are out-groups.

CONCLUSION

The results of the current study have implications for supervisors and subordinates alike. Because it appears that supervisors are less generous in their attributions for the performance of their out-group subordinates, they should exercise caution when assigning causality for the performance of these subordinates. Based on the notion that attributions are followed by behavior that is consistent with attributions, this may result in supervisors taking inappropriate actions toward out-group subordinates, leading to a spiral of increasingly poor performance by these individuals. Our results also suggest that all subordinates would do well to communicate closely with their supervisors regarding their own performance as a means of ensuring more accurate attributions on the part of the supervisors.

In conclusion, this study has extended prior research by examining LMX relationships from both the supervisor and the subordinate point of view and by exploring both positive and negative performance incidents. The results of this study suggest that in-group status has the benefit of resulting in positive attributions for one's performance, while out-group status results in attributions for performance that are more negative than was previously anticipated.

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Constance R. Campbell

Associate Professor of Management

Georgia Southern University

Cathy Owens Swift

Professor of Marketing

Georgia Southern University
Table 1: Descriptive Statistics and Correlations

Variable Mean s.d. 1 2

1. LMX Score 5.33 1.19 .92
2. Internal Positive 5.80 0.98 .41 ** .73
3. External Positive 4.19 1.41 -.02 -.01
4. Internal Negative 3.67 1.45 -.03 -.13 *
5. Bad Luck 4.13 1.71 .15 ** .11 *

Variable 3 4 5

1. LMX Score
2. Internal Positive
3. External Positive .73
4. Internal Negative .31 ** .70
5. Bad Luck .29 ** .10 N/A

N = 365

Values on the diagonal are Cronbach's alpha
coefficients. * p < .05, ** p < .01.

Table 2: Factor Analysis of Attributions
for Positive Performance

 External Internal
 Positive Positive
Variable Attributions Attributions

1. Ability -.586 .674#
2. Effort -.406 .799#
3. Task Ease .733# .507
4. Luck .754 .461
5. Eigenvalue 1.615 1.563
6. Percentage of 40.380 39.063
 Variance
 Explained

Note: Variables included in interpretation of a
factor indicated with #.

Italicized numbers indicate variables included
in interpretation of a factor.

Table 3: Factor Analysis of Attributions
for Negative Performance

 Internal
 Negative Bad
 Attributions Luck

1. Ability .819 -.288
2. Effort .804 -.314
3. Task Difficulty .730 .412
4. Luck .208 .901
5. Eigenvalue 1.893 1.163
6. Percentage of 47.231 29.071
 Variance
 Explained

Note: variables included in interpretation of
a factor indicated with #.

Italicized numbers indicate variables included
in interpretation of a factor.

Figure I: Predicted Attributions for Work
Performance by LMX Status

The In-group: The Self-serving Bias

 Positive Performance Negative Performance

Supervisor H1: Internal > External H2: Internal < External
Subordinate H3: Internal > External H4: Internal < External

 The Out-group: The Actor-observer Bias

 Positive Performance Negative Performance

Supervisor H5: Internal > External H6: Internal > External
(Observer)

Subordinate H7: Internal < External H8: Internal < External
(Actor)

Figure II: Actual Attributions for Work
Performance by LMX Status

The In-group: The Self-serving Bias

 Positive Performance Negative Performance

Supervisor [H.sub.1]: Internal [H.sub.2]: Internal
 > External < External
 6.17 3.39 3.01 4.33

Subordinate [H.sub.3]: Internal [H.sub.4]: Internal
 > External = External
 6.30 4.11 3.66# 4.09

The Out-group: The Actor-observer Bias

 Positive Performance Negative Performance

Supervisor [H.sub.5]: Internal [H.sub.6]: Internal
(Observer) = External > External
 4.60 4.38# 3.93 3.39

Subordinate [H.sub.7]: Internal [H.sub.8]: Internal
(Actor) > External < External
 5.60 4.12# 3.53 4.00

Note: Hypotheses which were not supported are indicated with #.

Hypotheses which were not supported are italicized.
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Author:Campbell, Constance R.; Swift, Cathy Owens
Publication:Journal of Managerial Issues
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2006
Words:5688
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