Attitude is not Everything. Listen to Batman and Focus on Behavior.

posted in: Communication 5

I love this quote from Batman Begins:

“Bruce, deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath… it’s what you do that defines you.”

As a leader, parent, and trainer, I confess that I cringe when I hear someone try to pump people up with an “attitude is everything” approach.

While it’s helpful to our own motivation to have a great attitude, it is unwise to focus on the “attitudes” of others, especially as a “cure-all”.

Why?  Here are some thoughts:

Sometimes, a person can have a great attitude, but be a negative influence on others.

For example, if I enter a group with an excited, take charge, can-do attitude, I might be totally ignoring the personalities of the other members.

What if the other members of my team like to take a slow, considered approach? And what if that’s the best way? My attitude might just mess things up, or at least show disrespect.

This can harm relationships and get in the way of achieving things.

Then, what I’ve learned is this: having a great attitude is a bad idea.

Not totally true — using inconsiderate behavior  is a bad idea. A subtle and critical difference.

Some days, a person can have a terrible attitude.

If that person has learned that “attitude is everything”, then on that day, that person might not try.

If a team member thinks, “My attitude is terrible today, so I am useless,” then their contribution will surely suffer, and their day will probably be lousy.

That person is wrong about attitude: if their behavior contributes, that is what matters, and can move the team forward, even on a bad day.

If you are the boss/coach/leader, and you see a “bad attitude” on your team, it is generally useless to address the attitude, because it is nebulous and internal.

If you focus on the behavior, you can experience success.  

Consider these two approaches:

Focus is on attitude: “Hey Julie, shape up that attitude! You’re bringing everybody down. C’mon and fire up!”

Focus is on behavior: “Say Julie, when you act grumpy by frowning and sticking to one word answers to open-ended questions, that keeps us from being as productive as possible. Sorry you’re having a rough day, really. We need your contributions, though, so can you soldier on and give us your thoughtful insights, please?”

So, focus on behavior instead of attitude, and see what happens.

What do you think?

5 Responses

  1. Ben Matthews
    | Reply

    Nice idea. I like the focus on behavior over attitude. However, we choose our attitude. Your second bullet about someone having a terrible attitude doesn’t hold weight with me. That person can choose better. As a leader, I hope I can help him/her see that. If I’m a leader, and someone has a bad attitude, something is amiss. I need to teach them that, yes, attitude is everything . . . and they are in charge of their attitude. I know, I know, I’m quoting that corny Swindoll piece. But he’s right. Your focus on behavior is good. But it seems your dismissing the importance of attitude, and I’m not sure I like the implication that creates. I don’t think you’re being dismissive of attitude (are you?), but there’s got to be a better way to achieve your point.

  2. Alan Feirer
    | Reply

    Over 20 years of learning, and 10 years of helping leaders and teams, I’ve seen so many coaches/leaders/managers/teachers frustrated by attitude. In so many of those cases, a re-focus on behavior helps change things. Including attitude!

    Am I being altogether dismissive of attitude? No. Of course I agree that attitude is important, attitude makes a difference, and attitude is controlled by the individual. But THAT message is out there enough already, and sometimes I’m afraid it’s getting more emphasis than actual ACTION.

    In terms of the second bullet point, and your point about choice, I stand by that point as one of the most significant examples of this concept in practice; If someone has a bad attitude, they usually stay there even when their attitude is addressed. If they have the maturity to choose better, they likely will. If they don’t, then the leader can step in with specific behavioral recommendations (as outlined in the third bullet). Most people can follow instructions far better than they can choose a better attitude.

    Finally, you’re very right about one thing (and somewhat right about nearly everything); there’s a better way to express my point. That’s why I included the Batman clip! 🙂

  3. Lewy
    | Reply

    Lately, I study about the relationship between performance and attitude. the current academic study show there is a weak correlation between attitude and performance. I used to agree ‘attitude is everything’, but I tend to say ‘attitude is important for many things’, also, it can not form the foundation of everything. for example, a children have a good attitude does not means always score A in math, conversely, I saw a child with poor attitude did score A for that performance. But, as all we know, for long term perspective, ‘attitude’ do play a crucial role for individual in term of relationship, motivation, even performance, etc., and my point here behaviour enhancement as the ‘critical determinant’, which lead to high performance is more likely the case. Well, I don’t mean that ‘behavior is everything’.

    • alanfeirer
      | Reply

      Important contribution, Lewy, thanks. If you’re research is in the form of a document, please feel free to email it to me, as I’d love to see it.
      I agree that behavior isn’t “everything”, either; but attitude is personal and influences the holder of the attitude primarily, whereas the behavior is what principally affects others/the team. But in the line of work that I’m in — and was in before (teaching/coaching) — ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING is such a pervasive message that it really seems to be helpful when the lens is refocused.

      Thanks so much for reading, and for contributing.

  4. Robert Guthrie
    | Reply

    First of all let’s define one definition of (attitude): “Thinking about someone or something, one that is reflected in a person’s behavior.” The term may not mean “everything” in a literal sense, but is one of a number of factors towards success or failure at a desired objective or personal goal . “Action” is the main word here or could be regarded as such because action or acting on a thing often leads to success or getting something done. A positive or good attitude can goad an individual into (doing) what is necessary in achieving an objective, while a negative attitude may cause an opposite effect. This idea is evident in the vocational lives of the successful as well as the failures. The question now remains, is “ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING” really such a pervasive message or is it merely a vital part of a generator needed to get the engine running properly?

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