Building Culture: Attitude

This is the first entry in a series on keys to CI culture.

If I wanted to, I could make a perfectly healthy employee at my company feel ill. It wouldn’t require foul play of any kind. Want to know how I’d do it?

Picture this. I walk out of my office, through the honeycomb of desks right outside my door, and as I’m walking I start to pass an employee–we’ll call him Dave. He says hi to me. As he does I’d stop in my tracks and look at him just a little bit cock-eyed.

RAY: “Hey, Dave. Say, are you feeling all right?”
DAVE: “I think so. Why?”
RAY: “You just… you’re paler than usual. You look like you could use a lozenge, or maybe some aspirin.”
DAVE: “I… well, that’s weird. I feel fine.”
RAY (concerned): “Well, for some reason, you don’t look fine. You having any aches? A headache? A fever?”
DAVE: “No. Well, not that I know of, anyway.”
RAY: “All right, if you say so. Keep an eye on it for me, will you? You know how things tend to go around.”
DAVE (now nervous): “O-okay, Ray.”

Before, he might have been in excellent spirits, but now he wonders if he could have caught something from his child, from his wife. He’s running his tongue over the roof of his mouth and checking his forehead. Ten bucks says that, if he happens to get a headache around dinner time, he calls in sick the next day just to be sure. If he were particularly affected by my acting, it’s legitimately possible that he would become sick though he wouldn’t have otherwise.

My little stunt would work because of the power of suggestion, to which none of us are fully immune. But it wouldn’t be a harmless prank, like pointing at the floor and telling someone they dropped their arm. Dave is now feeling unwell, and it’s anyone’s guess if he shows up to work tomorrow. That affects what we can do as a company. And Dave is one of many, many employees; as you can see, how people are feeling has huge implications for our success as a company.

I use this example to show how important–and immediate–the effects of attitude are. Never mind illness; what I did was an exercise in attitude choice. For one minute, I chose to be nervous, paranoid, prying; Dave merely picked up on it. Any of us would.

In the book It’s Your Ship, Captain Michael Abrashoff explained that, while living aboard a military vessel, he would be especially cranky the next day if he’d been deprived of sleep, which usually happened if he was called multiple times during the night. Eventually he learned that the crew would size up his mood and attitude at 6am reveille, and the word would quickly spread around the ship if he had a bad attitude. “The dark side is out,” they’d murmur to one another. Because those midnight calls were necessary, and the tired crankiness was unavoidable, he learned to keep more to himself on such days, and the mood of the crew seemed consistently better after that.

Military officer or not, if you’re the boss and you’re in a bad mood, you can ruin everyone’s day. No one is comfortable when the boss is in a bad mood. But it gets worse. The same way that I robbed my own company of productivity by making Dave feel sick, I can rob my company just by being a sourpuss. If you think the boss doesn’t care about you, is unpleasant to be around, and is never pleased with anything you do, what reason do you have to try?

But what is wonderful about attitude–and human beings, really–is that we have the capacity to choose. Things do happen, and all of us wake up on the wrong side of the bed sometimes. But when I walk into the office, it isn’t about me, or the fact that I might be in a bad mood. I’m the boss, I like what I do, and I want everyone to have a good day of work. So I’m going to act the part!

This takes practice. It’s a daily exercise, and it starts with little things. Work on it a while, and then the true test will come. It’ll be a rainy morning and you’ll get a flat tire on the way to work. While trying to loosen the lug nuts your hand slips and you bust your knuckles on the asphalt, then mash on your fingers when trying to use the jack. You walk into work soaking wet, bleeding, and with a sore finger on your good hand and a cold cup of coffee in the other. Dave is back in the office and he asks you how you are.

The correct answer: you’re doing all right, thanks! You’re glad to finally be at work. You’re happy to see everyone. At a bare minimum, you’re “fine”–but if that’s the answer you choose, please, try to sound like you mean it. People will see it, take note of it, and they’ll wonder how you do it. (You choose it.) As with anything else, they’ll model a good example if given one.

You’ll continue to hear about attitude on CI Helix because of its huge effect on communication. Communication is going to be an important subject to understand for CI undertakings–and one of the biggest parts of your job in a CI program–so get to a mirror and check yourself.

Attitude is contagious. Is yours worth catching?

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