Teaching Positive Attitude

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015).

Positive attitude: Conveying optimism, generosity, support, and enthusiasm in one’s expressions, gestures, words, and tone.

There is no doubt, employee attitudes affect productivity, quality, and morale; collegiality, cooperation, and cohesion; employee development; and retention, as well as turnover. Good employee attitudes drive positive results. Bad employee attitudes put a drag on results. That’s a fact proven by study after study, including our own.

Do today’s young workers need a generation-wide attitude adjustment? Perhaps they’ve all been conditioned by social media to err on the side of over-sharing. Maybe so, but even if you could get inside their heads, you shouldn’t try. It is not your job to be your employees’ therapist. What you must do instead is focus on the external behavior: What they can do, for sure, is learn to keep their negative feelings “to themselves” and “smile on the outside” more at work.

Do not make the three most common mistakes most managers make when dealing with “bad attitudes”:

  1. Treating attitude as a personal issue, an “internal” state of mind that is off limits
  2. Treating attitude as unchangeable (“that’s just who I am”) matter of personality
  3. Talking about attitude in vague terms or indirectly

As long as you think of attitude as a personal, internal matter, it is going to remain intangible and you will remain out of your depth. Feelings are on the inside. Observable behavior is on the outside. That observable behavior can be seen, heard, and felt. No matter how intrinsic the source may be, it is only the external behavior that can be and must be managed. As a leader, dealing with attitude becomes a whole lot easier if you treat it head on, directly, as just another matter of performance management. Here’s my best advice:

  • Make great attitude an explicit and regularly discussed performance requirement for everyone.
  • Make it about external behaviors, which employees can modify as necessary.
  • Define the behaviors of great attitude: expressions, words, tone, and gestures. Describe the behaviors. Require them. Teach them. Reward people for displaying them proudly. Hold people accountable when they don’t.

Make Them Aware/Make Them Care

This is the message I recommend managers deliver when they are trying to convince their young employees to really care about developing good attitude:

“This is why you should care about demonstrating a positive attitude at work: Attitude may be hard to define and describe—great, good, bad, or average. But it is very, very important. At every level, leaders and managers rate “attitude” as one of the most important factors in employee performance. Attitude can be the difference between success and failure for our business. Attitude can be the difference between success and failure for any employee.

Even so, many leaders and managers fail to talk about the power of attitude: Many believe that attitude is a personal issue, and so it is off limits. Many believe that attitude is just “who a person is” and can’t be changed, so they don’t try. Many believe attitude is vague, so they wouldn’t know where to begin. Those beliefs are all wrong, and that approach is a big mistake.

Here’s the good news: Attitude is not a vague internal matter that is unchangeable. Like anything else, displaying a positive attitude is a skill set that can be learned and mastered. Attitude is simply too important to leave off the table. So we are going to talk about it. We are going to focus on external behaviors. The bottom line is simple: Good attitudes are required. Not on the inside. What you feel on the inside is your business, 100 percent. But on the outside, positive words, tones, and gestures are required and expected. Here’s some more good news: Research shows that if you make an effort to display positive words, tones, and gestures on the outside, it has a positive effect on your internal brain chemistry, and it makes you feel better on the inside.

Here’s the bottom line: If you learn to display a positive attitude at work, regardless of what you are feeling inside, then you will have learned one of the most important broad transferable skills you could ever learn. You will be valued for your positive attitude in any role in any organization anywhere any time. And that is a skill that will never become obsolete.

Can You Fix Bad Attitudes?

Everybody has bad days or bad moments. In our career seminars, we do an exercise—NOT to help a person find out whether or not he or she has a bad attitude. The purpose is to help each person figure out for him or herself: When you do have bad days or bad moments, what kind of bad attitude behavior are you most likely to display? Armed with that information, the person should be better prepared to avoid that behavior and take corrective action more swiftly when it does happen.

So we take them through a series of questions to see what kinds of bad attitude behavior to which they are most susceptible:

  • Do you sometimes behave like a “Porcupine”? Porcupines send the message: “Get away from me!”
  • Do you sometimes behave like an “Entangler”? Entanglers want everybody else to be involved in their issues. They want to be noticed, observed, listened to, and engaged—even if those issues are not the concern of the person in question.
  • Do you sometimes behave like a “Debater”? Debaters always have an argument to make, regardless of whether it is a good argument or not.
  • Do you sometimes behave like a “Complainer”? Complainers point out the negative symptoms of a situation without offering a solution based on the root cause.
  • Do you sometimes behave like a “Blamer”? Blamers are like complainers, pointing out negative symptoms, but blamers point the finger at a specific individual.
  • Do you sometimes behave like a “Stink Bomb Thrower”? Stink bomb throwers make sarcastic (or worse) remarks, curse under their breath (or aloud), or even make loud gestures such as slamming or yelling.

Of course, even if you have bad moments or bad days, most people also have plenty of good attitude, too. Everybody does. In our career seminars, we do another exercise—NOT to help a person find out whether he or she has a good attitude. The purpose is to help people figure out for themselves when they are at their best, what kinds of good attitude behaviors do they most often display? Armed with that information, the person can try to leverage that strength with more purpose and consistency. Not only that, but the person may become aware of other “good attitude” behaviors he or she would like to add to his or her repertoire!

So we take people through a series of questions to see what kinds of good attitude behavior to which they are most susceptible:

  • When you are at your best, are you approachable, welcoming, and professional?
  • When you are at your best, do you communicate in a highly purposeful manner—brief, straightforward, and efficient?
  • When you are at your best, do you choose your arguments carefully, and make your arguments based on clear evidence, rather than assertions of opinion?
  • When you are at your best, are you a troubleshooter, focusing on the steps you can take yourself to make things better?
  • When you are at your best, do you go out of your way to make positive, optimistic, generous comments? Speak in positive tones? Make positive gestures and expressions?

When you can make “attitude”—good and bad—less vague and more about specific observable behaviors, it helps people become more aware and more purposeful about mitigating their negative behaviors and accentuating their positive behaviors. Make it explicit, talk about it, focus on it, and watch the attitudes get better.

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015). For more information, visit http://www.amazon.com/Bridging-Soft-Skills-Gap-Missing/dp/1118725646

Based in New Haven, CT, Bruce Tulgan is a leading expert on young people in the workplace. He is an advisor to business leaders all over the world, the author or coauthor of numerous books, including the classic, “Managing Generation X” (1995); best-seller “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” (2007); “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy’ (2009); “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014); and Bridging the Skills Gap (2015). Since founding management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. Follow him on twitter @brucetulgan. He can be reached at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com.

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