Posted February 20, 2020
The great philosopher Bocephus (Hank Williams, Jr.) once pined about how some people need an “Attitude Adjustment.” The wildly politically incorrect song describes various occasions when an intoxicated or otherwise out of control individual is steered in the right direction via the corrective application of physical force. In other words, a rowdy person gets a butt whooping.
Attitude adjustments aren’t just fodder for country music songs. In order for any of us to be more effective in leadership (or life), the highest leverage change we can make is with our attitude. Why? Because there’s a path from attitude to results. Here’s the path:
This path from attitude to results is circular and self-reinforcing. The results you experience will reinforce your attitude. For example, if I bring a selfish attitude into my personal life, I will behave selfishly (trying to get my needs met without regard for the needs or wants of my wife, children, or friends). Such behaviors will certainly diminish the quality of these important relationships, and low-quality relationships will result in my own feelings of sadness, isolation, and increased sense of need/want. Since my needs are not being met, I will double-down on the belief that I must act in my own interests in order to meet my needs (aka “selfish”), thus starting the self-reinforcing cycle all over again.
This path also applies to professional life. I once had a client who sincerely believed her coworker was her competition. My client’s behavior toward her coworker was viciously competitive: she would withhold information, fail to inform her of meetings, and try to triangulate other workers into the dysfunction. Such behaviors polluted my client’s work relationships – not just with the one coworker whom she believed to be the competition, but also with all her other workmates who began to avoid her. The results? My client was miserable. She worked insanely long hours (she had to outwork the competition!), she was lonely, her health was suffering, and guess whose fault this was? You guessed right: my client blamed her coworker, which reinforced her belief that she and the co-worker were in the fight of a lifetime.
Negative cycles such as the one that trapped my client appear warped and kind of crazy from the outside, but from within the cycle they are perfectly logical. If someone is your competition, it makes perfect sense to behave competitively with him or her. It also is perfectly reasonable that your relationship with that person would be very low quality and that a battle would result in a certain level of mayhem. In fact, the internal logic of the cycle is what makes it so very difficult to break. It’s also why behavior modification usually isn’t enough to produce the results we want in life.
My client couldn’t behave differently at work until she changed her attitude about her coworker. Indeed, she needed an attitude adjustment. Unlike the country music song, her attitude adjustment didn’t involve being punched in the face – at least not literally. But the pain stemming from her results did cause her to rethink her thinking. I helped her verbalize and admit that she believed her coworker was her competition, which allowed her to consider alternative truths about the situation. Sometimes we need to think about how we’re thinking. This was the case for my client. She admitted that she was a naturally competitive person. She was the only child of parents who’d moved to the States from Hong Kong who’d been groomed to demonstrate superiority at school, in music, in sports, and pretty much in everything else in life. But she had to realize that she had control over her attitude.
An attitude adjustment isn’t like a light switch that we just flip and instantly we have a better attitude. Instead, we have to consider alternative attitudes, imagine what behaviors would flow from these alternative attitudes, and then act as if the new truth were actually true.
Attitude adjustments are hard work. I find it helpful to “reverse engineer” attitudes, starting with the results. For my competitive coaching client, I asked her what kind of results she wanted to experience in work and life. She wanted peace, joy, plenty of time for family, and to not have to work 80 hours/week. What kind of relationships would be necessary to produce those desired results? She needed better relationships, ones she could trust, people with whom she could share the workload, and ones that needed less defensive energy from her. How would she need to behave in order to have high-quality relationships? She’d need to be kind, cooperative, open, honest, and so on. As she considered these new behaviors, she objected, “But I can’t be open and honest with her, she’ll use that against me!” So I asked her what she would need to believe in order to behave in such an open and honest manner. And there was the pinch: she would need to believe her coworker was not her competition. But that wasn’t true to her (at least not yet).
My client was faced with a stark reality: her attitude (my co-worker is my competition) was making her own life miserable. She had a choice. She could either stick with her current attitude or she could experiment with a new one. Fortunately for her, she chose to test out an attitude adjustment. Even though she didn’t fully believe it, she behaved as if her coworker were not her competition. This improved her relationships and began to improve the results she was getting. Slowly and steadily, the new and improved results began to reinforce her new and improved attitude. Her old cycle was eventually replaced with a new, healthier one.
Here are some coaching questions to help you have your own attitude adjustment: