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Attitude isn’t fixed

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy

Wise leaders know that attempting to change negative attitudes by threatening sanctions rarely accomplishes anything.

I learned this vital lesson quite late in my leadership life and I have a thirteen-year-old boy to thank for being my teacher.

John (not his real name) came from a dysfunctional family, characterised by domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and extreme neglect. At the time I was the principal at John’s school, and in such a role I was often called upon to manage him and his behaviour.

It was a Tuesday afternoon and I was called up to a particular classroom (once again) to deal with an incident involving John. When I got there Teacher X was launched into a very public tirade about the child and how it all came down to John’s ‘bad attitude’. I removed John from the classroom – as much for his own protection as for any disciplinary reasons.

However, the remarkable thing was that the very next day I entered another classroom and saw the teacher (let’s call him Teacher Y) standing against the wall observing his class as the students went about conducting a range of activities and experiments. I wandered over to the teacher and watched in wonder as the class continued with their work without needing any intervention or correction from the teacher. It was at that point that he leaned towards me and said “Look at John, what a fantastic attitude he’s got.’ And there he was, helping other people, following instructions and being fully engaged in the learning process.

Not just good, but ‘fantastic’. Yet this particular classroom was two doors down from Teacher’s X’s, where John’s attitude, and consequent behaviour, had been so bad. The two subjects were of a very similar nature – so the difference was all down to the approach taken towards John by the two teachers.

And my learning point? – Attitude isn’t fixed!

Think now how we manage underperforming employees with a ‘negative attitude’ in the workplace.

The singular perspective is that the problem almost always lies with the individual in question. The typical solution involves the manager applying a protocol that is geared to changing the individual’s behaviour. Regardless of how sensitively such a protocol is employed the bottom line is the expectation of compliance from the individual, with the subtext being “If you don’t change then you won’t be staying here for long”.

In many ways such an approach mirrors Teacher X, i.e. here are my expectations, rules and regulations – now comply with these or I will take appropriate action.

The interesting thing about a ‘negative attitude’ is that it is often something that can be manifested in such a subtle way that it never triggers the threshold where the compliance model can be applied. In such circumstances the compliance model has no effect as the individual in question can avoid engagement with the process – just as long as they don’t break the threshold.

However, I’d like to suggest that such compliance models are looking down the ‘wrong end of the telescope’.

Attitude is defined in the dictionary as “a settled way of thinking or feeling about something”, with a North American supplement being “truculent or uncooperative behaviour” e.g. “he has an attitude”.

It’s interesting that these two definitions often conflate to the point that attitude is almost always used in conjunction with a negative description of an individual.

From a psychological perspective attitude is a predisposition to behave in a way that is expressed with some degree of favour or disfavour. If we return to John, we see a boy who has a predisposition to misbehave in a class that was managed by Teacher X, whereas in Teacher Y’s classroom he was predisposed to behave in a positive manner.

Attitudes are comprised of four components:

– our beliefs, theories and expectations;
– feelings, fear, liking or anger;
– goals, aspirations and expected responses
– our judgement about the goodness or badness of the object.

It is the last of these that is the most important in terms of shaping attitude, as it is a consequence of the other three components.

What is fascinating from the reading the literature in this field that we typically store our evaluation (or judgement) of something in our memory and forget the corresponding beliefs, feelings and intentions that were responsible for shaping that attitude.

That’s why asking John why his attitude towards Teacher X was bad would be a complete waste of time.

It also explains why attempting to get John to change his behaviour through a ‘compliance’ regime based upon rewards, or more typically, avoiding punishment is unlikely to succeed at any depth – as it doesn’t change beliefs or judgement. This is why some people can comply with the regime in order to avoid punishment – but they still retain a very negative attitude towards the organisation.

The lesson I took from John’s experience was that in order to change other people’s attitude you have to first look at your own behaviour. What can I do to help the person change their beliefs and expectations? John had learned that teachers would always look to punish him immediately he entered a classroom – so was it any wonder that he was predisposed to misbehave? Teacher Y challenged that belief by not conforming to John’s expectation.

Secondly, Teacher Y, by thinking about the way he engaged with John and used praise and encouragement, he had helped to change how John felt about him as a teacher, and the subject he was teaching.

Eventually, this led to a complete change in John’s predisposition before he even entered the classroom, whereas he was still locked into his previous set of behaviours when he entered Teacher X’s classroom.

My point is that this lesson applies just as much to sophisticated and intelligent adults working in complex professional organisations, as it does for a recalcitrant thirteen year old.

So, before you next throw up your hands in despair about the negative attitudes and lack of positive engagement by some of your workforce, take Leo Tolstoy’s words to heart and think first:

“What can I change about myself?”