Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Off-Topic: The Psychology of Attribution

I tried thinking of examples of professions in this day and age where one can safely and practically say that one is competing only with the self, but I honestly can’t think of any mainstream vocation where one could make this claim without sounding clich├ęd and impractical.

Despite the overwhelming explosion of information about every profession, the irony is that quite a few of us continue to live in the bubble that cut-throat competition is the sole propriety of only the professions we practice. But that’s just the grass seeming greener on the other side.

Competition is here to stay in most fields until we evolve a more sophisticated and collective model of growth. Until that Utopian evolution happens, all we can do is to insist on rigorous adherence to certain first principles to ensure that trust, mutual respect and civility continue to be valued and observed in inter-personal dealings at the workplace.

Among those first principles, the one which needs to be ruthlessly insisted upon and enforced, considering that it is most susceptible to the pulls and tugs of competition, is “attribution”. Philosophical justifications aside, “attribution” is practically critical for team work and effective leadership.

Instead of highlighting the positives of attribution, it would probably help more to know the downsides in failing to give someone her or his due. When a team leader or a colleague fails to attribute someone for his contribution, it slowly leads to resentment, and gives the impression that the leader or the colleague is insecure about sharing credit with his team members.

Resentment in turn leads to progressive levels of dissent because trust in and respect for the leader or the colleague have suffered erosion. After a point, the leader is bound to encounter frequent insubordination, and if he is perceptive enough, is bound to sense a discernible lack of interest in his team members to contribute to the growth of the workplace.

The probable reason why failure to attribute has flammable consequences is that it provides ample fodder to a person’s sense of being a victim, and self-pity is known to be a self-feeding animal. The problem with self-pity is that a person in the grip of this mindset is rarely alive to his or her faults, for he has firmly entrenched himself in an impregnable cocoon of righteous indignation. Needless to say, all this certainly cannot lead to a conducive and productive atmosphere at the workplace.

Attribution facilitates greater co-operation between team members and the leadership even in relatively selfless professions. Someone I know is in the Indian armed forces, and has probably one of the finest service records, which is strewn with acts of bravery. He told me that more than patriotism, it is a fierce sense of loyalty to one’s Commanding Officer which is largely responsible for several acts of unquestioned obedience and bravery during battle. I was told that it is not just the Commanding Officer’s abilities which inspire loyalty, but also the belief that individual acts of bravery of soldiers would not go unnoticed by the CO. This is important because it is the CO who recommends his soldiers for awards of bravery.

This example is not meant to undermine the importance of patriotism, but incentive does play a key role even in the Armed Forces where most of us would typically expect a soldier to be an epitome of selflessness.

Since attribution and incentive are so deeply connected, the former is indispensable to ensure fairness in distribution of incentives. What is pertinent is that the need for rigorous attribution applies all the more if the workplace is in the business of innovation. Enterprises which are in the business of innovation would do particularly well to have specific and sensitive mechanisms in place to recognize individual contributions. Such recognition, contrary to what one might expect, does not undermine the positives of team work. Instead, it forces people to be careful enough to not accept undue credit, which goes a long way in nurturing mutual respect for each others’ talents.

The bottom line is, attribution, which is at the heart of IP jurisprudence, is the hallmark of integrity, and workplaces which fail to recognize this are bound to implode.  

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, your making the link between attribution that you know from IP world, and attribution in day-to-day work.
    Note that attribution in the work place can be partly included in work contracts. A north american CEO onboarding a troubled indian company should read this article.