Setbacks can swiftly spiral into ever worsening performance. How do we break out of these spirals? One way is through an understanding of what psychologists call attributions: the reasons or causes we give for our setbacks and failures.

We “attribute” our failures to, for example, bad luck. The reasons we all give for such failures are of course, varied, but might include any of the following:

  • bad luck
  • lack of effort
  • other people’s fault
  • lack of ability

These greatly affect our subsequent confidence, motivation, emotions, and performance. That said, it isn’t the actual reason that directly affects us. It’s how we think about that reason that holds the key.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I messed up today in one aspect of my daily role at work. I might think about why I messed up and conclude: “I’m just no good at this.” So far, fair enough. But, as is often the case, let’s say my thinking develops to “and it’s never going to change”, followed by “and this affects all parts of my work and life”, followed finally by “of course, I’m the only person this ever happens to.”

It’s easy to see how this sort of thinking isn’t helpful, but it’s all too common. If we try to pick apart this scenario, the initial problem has been attributed to some lack of ability. In attribution terms, we’d say this is an uncontrollable attribution. If we accept that ability is fairly fixed at any particular time-point, then this means something that’s not readily amenable to change. This in itself is a de-motivator, but it’s what happens next that’s the real problem.

Even if this attribution is a true reflection of reality, the problem arises when the person starts to generalise this uncontrollable attribution. So, when this attribution is followed by “and it’s never going to change”, this person is generalising this one attribution to all future events. Things are going downhill.

But things get even worse when the person starts generalising this lack of ability in this one specific area of performance to other areas, saying “and this affects all parts of my work and my life”.

The final nail in the coffin comes when the person closes ranks and takes on the mistaken belief that this is a unique personal flaw, claiming “of course, I’m the only person this ever happens to.”

So, what can we do to combat this thinking?

The answer?

Become Your Own Psychologist

First, you’ll need to learn to recognise these patterns of thinking. Next time something goes wrong, pay close attention to your thoughts. So, let’s say, after the initial disappointment, you think that you really didn’t put much effort into the task, then this is your initial attribution.

Now, think, is this attribution something controllable or uncontrollable. Since one can easily put in more or less effort, we’d consider this a “controllable” attribution—the amount of effort you put in could change.

Next, are you generalising this instance of underperformance to the future? If so, you need to think whether this is really true (hint: it’s not!). Just because you didn’t try hard enough today, things could be different next time.

Next, are you generalising this instance of underperformance to other situations? If so, you need to think whether this is really true (hint: again, it’s not!). Just because you didn’t try hard enough in this specific aspect of your performance, you’ll no doubt be able to think of plenty of other situations in which you tried really hard and got your rewards.

Finally, are you telling yourself that this instance of underperformance is unique to you? If so, you need to think whether this is really true (hint: again, it’s almost certainly not!). There will be plenty of examples of other people who underperformed due to lack of effort, so this really is a common issue, but one we can change!

I’ve seen this sort of thinking in high performers in many different domains. It’s always a real eye opener to hear about this develops and how it can be combatted. We’ve also demonstrated the power of this thinking in our lab, and I’ve spoken about it in academic and non-academic settings.

If you’d like to hear more, then my interview for BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind is an easy listen.

For a slightly different take on our performance spirals work focusing on the impact of rivals, my brief interview with US National Public Radio is a fun listen.

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