Attitude Adjustments: Coping is the Cure
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6 Ways to Optimize Performance Through Openness & Accountability

By: Ethan Schutz

In our last installment in our series on attitudes in the workplace, we explored how corporate cultures free of blame are much more pleasant and productive. So then why we do we blame at all? Often, we claim that we blame others in the name of justice or fairness. Sometimes we blame others because we don’t believe that we know how to get the job done. It is easier to blame others for lack of proper training or support, than to face our own negative feelings (and it could be true that we really do need more training and support). While our complaints may be true on the surface, the underlying reason that we blame others is not about other people but because of the fears inside each one of us. Those fears can be easily understood through theory of interpersonal relations called FIRO® (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation). This theory asserts that there are three basic fears that we all feel to one degree or another: being ignored, being humiliated, and being rejected. These fears, when we aren’t aware of them, drive everything we do.

It is easy to declare a change in attitude but when we are not aware of these fears it is hard to make it stick. It is like a New Year’s resolution: I may say that this year I’m going to exercise every day, yet we know that in practice this rarely works. Most people will carry out their New Year’s resolutions for one or perhaps two weeks, three weeks at the most. Continuously keeping these new habits is challenging. New research about forming habits confirms that it’s most crucial to recognize that we are driven by our internal feelings—our fears.

Yet, much of the time we are not aware that we have these fears and we avoid them as much as possible. It is in this avoidance that they have their power. For example, when we are afraid that people won’t listen to us or pay attention to what we say, we are concerned about being ignored. To avoid that we may repeat what we say or talk loudly or interrupt others in an attempt to have them hear us; or, we may shut down and say nothing, believing that no one wants to hear anyway, and then proceed to complain to friends and family about our plight. By doing this we are letting our fears drive our attitude. Our fears drive our beliefs about others— “people ignore me and don’t listen to me”, which become our attitudes— “people don’t listen.”

Learning to cope is the route to changing this. When we can cope, the fear no longer drives our behavior. Let’s return to the example of our healthcare company. In launching their new facility, they had to hire additional staff members. Some of these people were not a good fit for the organization and some were not truly capable of performing their jobs. For a while, leadership struggled with this. They were caught between wanting to help people develop and needing to have people perform right away. Some of the people who were working were not very accountable and the team was not getting the responsible results that they wanted. So, the team chose to focus on creating a progressive discipline process for people who were not accountable. Their intention was to have a clear course of action in case their sincere attempts to help people develop and improve did not work. By having this backstop of sorts, a way to address underperformance clearly and fairly, they felt much freer to engage with people who were not performing well in a positive, developmentally oriented way. Knowing that they had a solid contingency plan, a way to cope if these attempts didn’t work, made the difference. Because they felt better able to cope, their own attitudes changed and made them more effective leaders.

The team was doing better, but they were applying a technique—listening to understand—rather than being in a different emotional place, that is having a truly different attitude.

How would they get there?