Are We Facing an Attitude Shortage?
How should organizations juggle the need for the right skills as well as the right attitudes? What goes wrong when one or the other is missing?
"Good attitudes supercharge organizational performance beyond what the skill/talent level would indicate," according to Perry Miles. "Attitude is one of the strongest determinants of performance," added Richard McLaughlin. Their characterizations reflected the views of nearly all respondents to the August questions of the month. And many respondents believe they know who is responsible for the "attitude deficit": leaders and managers.
Edward Hare summed up the views of many respondents most succinctly: "Of course we have an attitude problem... The 'attitude problem' is at the top, not the bottom!" Meenal Dandavate concurred: "[Attitude]...can be cultivated consciously, but mostly it has the tendency to flow/cascade from the top down." Others concentrated on reasons for the dilemma as well as possible solutions.
The biggest problem, according to several readers, is identifying attitude in the first place. Bradburne Millett asks, "What sort of measurements are you contemplating to reveal desired attitudes on the scale needed to recognize their presence or absence and correct for shortcomings?" Pamela Woodnick pointed out that "So many managers are afraid that attitude is too soft, too difficult to assess and to use as a key hiring criteria." Saurabh Dwivedy commented that "...attitude, morals, ethics, and leadership skills are all linked together on a broader plane...They are difficult to comprehend because they lack an operative definition." Art Warbelow (who emphasizes attitude in selecting aviation pilots) said, "The tough part is assessing attitude in the job interview... I can't assess it beforehand, but I know it when I see it..."
Arindam Mukherjee suggested, "The best way to go about it in the corporate world is to have good leaders who can lead by example with positive and solution-oriented attitudes." Kevin Bowe added, "Attitudes can be learned, and winning behaviors fostered, with principle-centered management and a conscious investment in value-based employee development." Khadija Khan, while agreeing that "...it is hard to identify attitude problems in a short interview process," proposed a response: "One innovative approach that we use is to organize a collective activity for a day or two...and ask prospective candidates looking for executive positions to join in before finally short-listing them for the interview."
Surprisingly, relatively few suggested that the shortage of attitude might be addressed through formal education. Stever Robbins commented, "Attitudes can be taught, but our schools are ill equipped to teach them. Attitudes are taught implicitly through cultural norms, not through explicit discussion. Very few academic schools (if any} make this distinction..." Mike Wyman opined, "I believe the only thing that cannot be taught is attitude . Of course, the whole trick is to make sure your employees are happy." Taking issue with this, Zbigniew Becker suggested, "Educational programs do have a crucial role to play in installing/strengthening in future managers the conviction that attitude and values should prevail despite all the adversities of life." Where do you stand on these issues? What do you think?
Studies conducted by various researchers over the past two decades point to the importance of hiring and promoting for certain attitudes (for example, empathy and a desire to produce results and foster success for others) while training primarily for skills at all levels in an organization. Further, to reengineer an organization to do more with less, high-performing organizations not only hire for attitude and train for skills, they provide outstanding support systems and then broaden the latitude given to front-line employees to deliver results to important constituencies—customers, suppliers, investors, lenders, etc. Finally, they recognize and reward these people for results. Consequently, fewer higher-paid people with bigger jobs are capable of achieving greater results in organizations with fewer levels of management and less hierarchy and bureaucracy.
Their "attitudes approach" has had time to get communicated far and wide. Additionally, the rigors of competing in an economy with constrained demand have given further impetus to this philosophy. In my own experience, even organizations that have been skill-centered in the past, such as medical services, now are beginning to subscribe to this idea as they encounter increasing numbers of malpractice suits bred primarily from failures of attitude (insensitivity leading to patient anger, for instance) as opposed to poor skills.
Yet the majority of organizations haven't been willing or able to take full advantage of these conclusions. Some obviously don't subscribe to them. Organizations continue to hire for skills or easily observable surface behaviors and struggle with the almost impossible task of developing desired attitudes on the job. Others have employed support systems, aided by significant progress in the development of more sophisticated technology, either to substitute for management judgement or to constrain managers' behaviors. Still others haven't clearly identified precisely the kinds of attitudes (and the behaviors they produce) that they need, typically because they haven't fully determined the desired mission and values that provide the context in which hiring for attitude can take place. These are all possible explanations for differences in the competitive behaviors and results achieved by organizations in the same industry. But there may be one more: There is an increasing scarcity of talent with the attitudes that organizations are seeking.
If one accepts these "hypotheses"—and clearly not everyone does—this leads to a number of questions. The most basic is whether and how attitude can be developed or taught. Such development begins early in life. Some would argue that it is at least partly genetic. But to the degree that attitude can be developed, to what extent are educational programs responsible for helping in this process? And are they doing their job? To the extent that programs providing the primary source of future management talent are focusing only on skills and knowledge, are they short-changing future employers? Do we face a future attitude shortage? What, if anything, can we do about it? What do you think?