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Tongtharadol, V., J. H. Reneau and S. G. West. 1991. Factors influencing supervisor's responses to subordinate's poor performance: An attributional analysis. Journal of Management Accounting Research (3): 194-212.

Summary by Mohamed Gomaa
Ph.D. Program in Accounting
University of South Florida, Spring 2002

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The main purpose of this article, as stated by the authors, is to investigate the relationship between supervisors’ causal attribution and their subsequent response actions in a production performance evaluation context. They focused on the effect of the supervisor’s causal attributions and the subordinate’s assigned responsibility in the organization on the supervisor’s responses to the subordinate’s poor performance. The authors believe that knowledge of these relationships could be useful to managerial accountants who make information choices in performance evaluation settings.

Attribution Theory

"Attribution theory concerns the processes that individuals use to discern the causes of events." (p. 195). Several researchers suggest that individuals combine information in a logical manner to form inferences or attributions about their own behavior and the behavior of others. Individuals use three types of information when making causal attribution.

1. Consensus - Whether other subordinates perform similarly to the subordinate in question.

2. Consistency - Whether the subordinate performed similarly on previous occasions.

3. Distinctiveness - The similarity of a subordinate’s present performance to his/her performance under dissimilar conditions.

Four causal factors are used to make causal attributions for outcomes: ability, effort, task difficulty and luck. These factors are classified along the following two dimensions:

1. Locus of causality - Whether the cause is internal or external to the person performing the task.

2. Stability - The tendency for the cause to be changing or unchanging over contiguous trials.

A Performance Evaluation Model

The authors expanded a two stage model proposed by Green and Mitchell (1979) to form the generalized framework underlying their study (Figure 1). In their model they viewed the supervisor as an information processor who attempts to reach an understanding of the cause of an observed behavior, and then takes action based on the causal analysis.

Performance Assessment Model

The moderating variables associated with the antecedents portion include:

1. Self-serving attributions by the supervisor

2. The relationship between the supervisor and subordinate

3. Personal characteristics of the subordinate, and

4. Expectations of the superior.

The variables that affect the consequences portion include:

1. Subordinate impression management

2. Organizational policy

3. Cost/benefit of responses

4. Social context, and

5. Supervisor’s job experience.

Previous studies (e.g. Kaplan and Reckers, 1985; Green and Linden, 1980) have demonstrated that locus of causality is related to both the focus and severity of subsequent action responses. Mitchell (1982), however, suggested that several other factors such as stability of the attributed causes could influence subsequent action responses. Other studies indicate that, in addition to the internality or externality of the causal attribution, individuals consider the stability dimension in choosing an action to take in response to a subordinate’s poor performance.


The authors formed the following four hypotheses based on the literature they reviewed.

H1: Supervisors’ responses will be more punitive (severe) when the subordinate is responsible than when not responsible for the performance failure.

H2: When the subordinate is responsible for the performance failure, supervisors’ responses will be more punitive (severe) when their attributions for the performance failure are made to internal causes than when attributions are made to external causes.

H3: When the subordinate is responsible for the performance failure, supervisors’ responses will be more punitive (severe) when their attributions for the performance failure are made to unstable causes than when attributions are made to stable causes.

H4: When the subordinate is responsible for the performance failure, the focus of the supervisors’ responses will be more internal when their attributions for the performance failure are made to internal causes than when attributions are made to external causes.


The authors conducted a field experiment using 549 members of the American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS). They presented the participants with a case scenario where a subordinate failed to meet a production quota. They asked the participants to select the most appropriate action to take in response to the failure and to rate what the action was to accomplish. The study had three independent variables, manipulated between subjects: locus of causality (two levels), stability of cause (two levels), and organizational responsibility (two levels). The researchers used two classes of dependent variables in the study: measures of punitiveness or severity, and focus (internal, external) of the action response chosen by the supervisor. The authors used a 2 (locus of causality) × 2 (stability of cause) × 2 (organizational responsibility) factorial design for the study.


The authors found that, consistent with the first hypothesis, subjects in the responsible groups responded with actions that are more punitive than those in the not responsible groups. Hypothesis 2 was partially supported using the subject-based measure of severity. With respect to hypothesis 3, the authors found that responsibility moderated the effect of the stability factor on the severity of action responses, but not in the manner they hypothesized. They state three possible explanations for this result:

1. The operationalization of locus of causality and stability in their study was slightly different from those used in other studies.

2. Their study was conducted in a field setting using experienced subjects rather than in a laboratory setting using students, or

3. The business scenario used in this study differs from the educational scenario used in the majority of previous studies.

The authors also found that the focus of action responses was shown to be related to the manipulation of locus of causality; however, this relationship was not moderated by the responsibility factor.


The authors noted three limitations to their study:

1. Subjects were provided with minimal information that was primarily intended for the manipulation of the independent variables.

2. The subjects responded with behavioral intentions, not actual behaviors, which may or may not reflect actual behavior.

3. Only members of the Phoenix chapter of APICS were included in the study. Therefore, the results cannot be generalizable.


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