"Attitude" or Behaviors?

At one time or another, most of us have been told that we had a "bad attitude". The message, usually delivered in the mode of an indignant or frustrated "parent", causes an almost autonomic response of anger and defensiveness.

"If you think my attitude is bad, you scum bag, let me tell you about.."; or "You're the one who caused me to have what you call a 'bad attitude'". After more than 30 years of working with thousands of people in business organizations throughout North America and Europe, I would like to suggest a different way of thinking about and approaching people who seem to have "bad attitudes".

AXIOM 1: The baby and the bath water
For most people, our weaknesses are our strengths carried to excess or misapplied.

If we think about the people we most admire, what makes us most angry with them or what disappoints us most about them is a strength we admire most about them being carried to far or "they go over the top".

For example, one of the most effective business executives I have ever met is a very bright, caring and intensely committed person. When he heard that he was "coming on too strong" he concluded that he must really reduce his intensity. In his words, "I'm going to become a 'Casper Milquetoast'."
Rather than look at the situation and, on a case-by-case basis, modify his intensity to fit that situation he was going to fundamentally change who he was and what made him so effective and admirable.

If we accept this axiom, when we approach a person about our discomfort or anger about something they have done, we must do so in a way that we are don't "throw the baby out with the bath water"?

AXIOM 2: Peeling back the onion
If we look at human beings and their actions in a different way - as if we were "peeling back an onion" - we may find a more helpful way of dealing with them.
I suggest that at the core of every person are his/her values:

  • those things for which I would be willing to die or kill. Normally established by the time one is 8 or 10 years old, they seldom change absent a frontal lobotomy, years of psychoanalysis or a significant emotional event in our lives. Most of us are not particularly good at articulating our values.

The next "circle" out is our beliefs:
  • an attempt to articulate our values. Most organizations have "creeds", statements of principles, visions, etc.

The third circle "out" is our theme attitudes:
  • We will return to this topic later.

The next circle out is roles and skills:
  • the roles one plays (in my case father, grandfather, husband, coach, teacher, golfer, writer, etc.) as well as the skills one does and does not possess.

The final circle is behavior:
  • the things one does or does not do; the actions I take or don't take. Behavior is all that really counts! No one can actually see values, beliefs, or attitudes. All we really see is another's behavior.

"That's interesting, but what does it have to do about attitudes:"

I suggest that the term "attitude" is a 'mindset' that has two uses.

Attitude use 1:
It is my view that no one behaves in ways that are consistent with their values all the time. We are, in fact, human. We are fallible and fail, sometimes, to behave or act in the way we would really like to. Why? Countless reasons! For purposes of this discussion, it doesn't really matter.

Because I am fallible, I must rationalize my failure to be perfect. I, therefore, construct my own attitude to justify to myself my failure to be perfect.

A personal example may help. At one time, I smoked 2 - 3 packs of cigarettes each day. I KNOW that smoking is DUMB! One of my basic values is not to be dumb! I'm doing something DUMB and I don't want to be DUMB.

My attitude becomes: "If I stop smoking entirely I'll gain 100 or more pounds and probably die of a heart attack. So I'll just smoke a few cigars each day instead of 2 - 3 packs of cigarettes and everything will be okay."

Put another way, my attitude is my excuse to me for the way I behave.

Attitude use 2:
When I observe the behavior of another person, I make assumptions about that person's values and beliefs based upon my observation of their behavior. There is no way I really know those things about the person even if I have known her/him for a long time. Nevertheless, I make an assumption or judgment about him/her based on my observations - as imprecise as they may be - of his/her behavior and say that she/he has a certain "attitude".

Most of us use "attitude", therefore, to label our assumptions about a person's values and beliefs based on our observation of their behavior and the effect that behavior has on us.

AXIOM 2: Peeling back the onion
What happens when we don't like what someone else is doing and we confront her/him by assessing his/her "attitude" and/or casting aspersions about her/his "values" or "beliefs"? WE'RE INVITING A FIGHT!

In my work with organizations, I suggest that we leave the three "inner circles" outlined above alone! It doesn't matter what a person's values, beliefs and "attitudes" are so long as their behavior is consistent with what the organization expects of the people who make up the organization. In my view, organizations do not have the right to dictate appropriate values or to tell people what they should/must believe. Organizations do have the right to state clearly what is expected regarding roles, skills required and acceptable and unacceptable behaviors - nothing more!

"But we have to talk about values so that we can ensure that the persons' values are aligned with ours and we know they will 'fit in'."

Of course organizations should state what they believe so that people know what the organization "stands for". Beyond that, I don't know how to determine one's values and beliefs, let alone their "attitude" except through observable behavior. All the "value clarification" exercises in the world only describe what people "say" their values are or, more accurately, what their "espoused" values are.

If the person's values are too far out of line with those of the organization, they will not come to work there or stay with the organization very long!

Focusing on behaviors and skills/roles is much less subjective or amorphous. Rhetoric doesn't count! Behaviors do! ! My experience suggests that past behavior is an excellent predictor of future behavior. For example, if one is concerned with an applicants "attitude" towards customer service, why not simply ask "Please tell me about an experience in your past that describes how you feel about customer service." If one is concerned about ethical conduct, why not ask, "Please tell me about an experience in your previous work in which an ethical dilemma arose and how you handled it."

An example may help. After conducting a workshop on this topic with operating leaders at Harley-Davidson, one of the participants, we'll call him Wayne, said to me, "I'd like to buy this stuff but you don't know Joe. He has a lousy attitude, poor work ethic and is just a no goodnik." I asked Wayne what Joe was doing that was so terrible. Wayne's response was that Joe was a high absentee and tardiness problem employee.

I suggested that Wayne discuss the attendance/tardiness problem from a behavior standpoint rather than values and beliefs and see what happened.

Two weeks later, Wayne called me and said "You're not going to believe what happened when I talked with Joe." I asked him what he had said to Joe and Wayne responded, "I did it the way you suggested. I asked him ' Joe, why is it that you only work 4 days per week'?"

I asked Wayne what Joe had said. Wayne lamented, "You won't believe this. Joe said, 'because I can't live on only three days pay!"

This example, absolutely true incidentally, suggests that Joe did not have an attitude problem. His behavior was very consistent with what he valued. Wayne, on the other hand, had a major problem with Joe's behavior.
As a postscript, Wayne talked with Joe in a very coaching manner about what was and was not acceptable behavior and they successfully resolved Joe's "behavior problem". One can easily imagine what might have happened if Wayne had approached Joe with "Joe, you've got a bad attitude and if you don't straighten out your attitude QUICK you are in real trouble."

AXIOM 2: Peeling back the onion
THINK ABOUT IT! If something I am about to do is a problem for me, I simply won't do it! While this sounds so simple, we have an issue with something someone else does - in other words we have a problem with their behavior - and insist upon the telling that person that he/she has a problem.

Approaching someone who is demonstrating a behavior (or set of behaviors) by being forthright about who "owns" the problem is a critical step in resolving the issue.

When we are approaching people with whom

we have an issue, bear in mind:

  • people don't do things that are a problem for them at the time they do them. In reality, you have an issue with that person; not, the other way around. Let the person know that "I have a problem..." and that you would like their help in solving your problem.
  • address the concrete behavior (or role/skill difficulty) rather than going after "attitudes" or values or beliefs. Behaviors count!
  • recognize that what may need to change is the way in which the person's strength is applied, not some major weakness or character flaw".