Attitude Adjustment: Look Out for the Behavior Police
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By: Ethan Schutz

In our last installment, we began discussing the impact attitudes have on company culture and employee performance during stressful, high-pressure situations. Our examination of a health care organization’s process as they launch a new facility revealed that everyone has an attitude – leadership and employees alike – and that there are several types of negative attitudes people tend to adopt in an effort to protect themselves.

Negativity Begets Negativity: Understanding the Cycle of Control

Stressful situations don’t typically bring out the best in most people. Even though the health care organization’s team had attended The Human Element® program and were committed to creating positive change, negative attitudes prevailed. Those who took on the roles of the Blame-Game Masters gave voice to their fear and frustration by telling team members they were lazy, incompetent and lacking in common sense.

When faced with this negativity, team members reacted with negativity of their own. Some took on the role of Defenders, feeling they had to justify every decision they made in order to avoid being blamed for any failures – perceived or actual; others retreated into the Minimalist position, trying to get by doing as little as possible. Office Gossips had a field day discussing who leadership liked and didn’t like.

The team’s negative response did little to improve overall organizational culture and performance. This, in turn, resulted in more negativity from the leadership. This cycle intensifies as it repeats, with distressing consequences that are easy to observe.

Time for a Change: Bring on the Behavior Police?

When the Blame-Game Masters were asked if they’d ever told their team what was expected from them, they admitted they’d expected the team to ‘just know’. This is a very common phenomenon, as is the response the Blame-Game Masters gave – an explicit articulation of how things ‘should be’ happening, including rules that covered every aspect of performance.

This rule making is an attempt to manage behavior without addressing attitude directly. Mandating expected behaviors, including respect and diversity training and behavioral competencies, seems like it should fix the problem. Some organizations attempt to manage attitude through values, with the hopes that team members will act the desired values out behaviorally.

These methods can make some positive difference. However, they do so by measuring the people responsible for the work against a set of expectations. Who’s doing the measuring? Leadership – who quickly find themselves in the role of the Behavior Police.

What’s Wrong with the Behavior Police?

In a workplace where leadership acts as the Behavior Police, they monitor and manage people. This really means that they are skeptical, doubting people until employees ‘prove themselves’ by acting in the desired fashion. This adversarial dynamic contributes to negativity in the workplace, and leads to team members acting in defensive, guarded ways that inhibit productivity, creativity, and problem-solving. These situations are toxic.

But defensive behavior is the effect, not the cause, of the underlying problem. Simply put, attitude drives everything else. With negative attitudes employees and leadership will not carry out organizational values and will not perform well. “Meeting behavioral expectations” is not the same thing as being a positive influence. The presence of the Behavior Police within an organization prevents team members from reaching their full potential and doing their best work – and that’s not the only cost!

Robert Sutton, professor of Management Science and Organizational Behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, has shown that in an organization of 1,000 people, the financial impact of negative attitudes is estimated at $750,000 per year. Sutton classifies this sum as the Total Cost of Jerks. Additionally, the resultant poor planning, strategy, and implementation that occurs in a negative environment diminishes productivity. Employee morale plummets, resulting in more sick days, discipline issues, complaints, sabotage, theft, higher employee turnover, unquantifiable lost opportunities, and more. For an organization determined to be successful, the presence of the Behavior Police is counterproductive at best – and during high-consequence, high-stress situations, potentially disastrous.

What Happens Next?

The arrival of the Behavior Police did not remedy the negative attitudes that had been plaguing the health care organization’s launch. In fact, the situation became worse. Conflicts erupted, and disciplinary action was taken. Some team members resigned, which added the pressure of finding and training their replacements to an already stressful situation.

Failure was not an option. Something had to give – but what? We’ll return in our next installment to identify the pivotal change that would help the team – and their company culture – get back on track.