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?
by James Heskett

Summing Up

"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 " 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?

Original Article

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?

    • Robert Nelson
    • Project Manager/Tutor, Wellington Institute of Technology

    Attitude is the key to organizational performance. Everything else can be taught in one form or another—if the attitude is missing there is a major problem. Having worked as a manager in a variety of industries, as well as facilitating training in academic and industry settings, I can confidently say that attitude is the one thing that that cannot be taught. Either you have it or you do not—and if you do not, you can only discover this for yourself: it cannot be imposed from outside of yourself.

    • Emily Bostwick
    • Manager Transportation Systems, BNSF Railway

    Because the '80s was a very affluent decade, most of the children that were being raised during those years and are now coming into the job market have high expectations that might not be met in today's employment climate. Their values are different from those who may have been a bit "hungrier" in prior decades. They want good pay, good hours, good benefits and lots of time off. I submit that in an industry such as ours (railroading), where the work can be dirty, outdoors, 24/7, and generally uncomfortable, the majority of applicants for those jobs will not have college degrees paid for by Mom and Dad. The applicants for those jobs will generally be hard-working and grateful to have employment. At this point in time, I feel you will find your best attitudes from among those that apply for the tougher jobs. They may not have as much formal education, but their minds are equally sharp.

    • Swier Miedema
    • Management Consultant, LogicaCMG BV, The Netherlands

    I do not feel we are facing an attitude shortage, but much more a leadership shortage. I define attitude as a result from our basic filterset, created somewhere between our third and fifteenth birthdays, our own sets of values and norms, and the corporate culture of the company. Filtersets, values, and norms are influenced by our direct (family and friends) surroundings and our own "build" which we receive from our parents (genetically), although part of our values and norms are also dictated by our communities.

    Corporate culture is "built" (and sometimes completely ignored) by the leadership of our companies. Shareholders who, more often than not, want quick and vast results from their investments, in their place, influence them heavily. So they try to influence the leadership to attain these quick and vast results, sometimes forgetting that we need to reinvest in companies in order to keep them growing. As management salaries are often tied to these required results, it is not strange that management is often more interested in getting the fast and vast quick results, eroding away the culture that got the company at the successful rank in the first place! If you are focusing on one point, it is very difficult to focus on another, sometimes controversial point too!

    We need to understand that we need to rebuild our companies to be sound and safe for the employees to work in, to be a place you go to with some pleasure, and to be a place to be proud of.

    I think one of our most basic drives is to matter at some sort of position, within a community. (One's personal feeling of self esteem is mainly influenced by that!) Companies are not very good anymore at creating that "community-feeling" through a corporate culture. They should probably redesign that culture so that the majority of their employees "feel at home".

    The crux lies in proper leadership and management, and proper selection and retention of talented people in environments where they can develop and groom these talents, so that the employer gets the best of his employees, and the employees are happy to give their best to the employer.

    • Richard McLaughlin
    • Principal, Richard McLaughlin Consulting

    With every consulting assignment I do, it becomes ever more clear to me that attitude is one of the strongest determinants of performance. Over here in the U.K., some clients seem reluctant to focus on it. One client thought it would be incorrect for an employer to identify desirable attitudes, or to measure and select for them, as it would be for gender, race, or political views. Good luck with your initiative. I hope it is not blocked by taboos.

    • Jay Vikram Bakshi
    • Senior Manager, Corporate Marketing, Hughes Software Systems

    Growing up in Calcutta in the late 1980s, our lives would be held for ransom by frequent strikes that would paralyze the city, its power system, and whatever infrastructure one used as a student.

    Starting off my work life in the same city a few years later, and facing the same problems, one found ways of coping with poor work ethic, changing attitudes, and demanding output by simply tapping into the common well of aspiration.

    In the last ten years, I have consistently practiced a simple exercise when demanding greater output.

    1. Hire for aptitude. You can tolerate a poor work ethic and incongruent attitude, but not if there is no inherent skill or aptitude.

    2. Show the altitude. Yes! Every person I have worked with to date has wanted to be a part of something greater than him or herself. So, paint the vision and highlight and recognize the role that the person is expected to play in realizing the output. Starbucks have built a Barista culture around it.

    3. Align the attitude. Within no time you will find you have the behaviors and attitudes that reinforce the long-term success of an organization.

    Attitude is something you need to work upon. We, as hiring managers, may treat this as a start point for the hiring decision, but to retain and grow the talent we hire, we need to work on and reinforce the right attitude.

    • Anonymous

    Absolutely! We face an attitude shortage that is only beginning to become visible because of the current labor market/employment conditions. As recently as two years ago employers were so concerned about finding bodies to fill positions that they only focused on technical skills and knowledge; behavior and attitudes were considered secondary if at all. I worked in recruitment for ten years prior to switching to IT. I can tell you that hiring manages frequently went ahead and hired candidates even though red flags were raised in regard to the so-called softer skills (attitude). This often leads to employee relations issues, decline in customer satisfaction, and retention issues. With the retirement of baby boomers in the next ten years, the pendulum will swing again and there will be a shortage of qualified workers to fill many positions. Unless attitude is addressed now through education and training programs, many employers will again become desperate and it is unlikely that softer skills will ever become a major consideration for hiring.

    • Saurabh Dwivedy
    • Senior Software Engineer, Patni Computer Systems India

    We cannot have skills without attitude. Just like you can't hold water without a container.

    Come to think about it, attitude, morals, ethics, and leadership skills are all linked together on a broader plane. But beyond a slew of definitions/observations/critiques they still largely remain confined to being keynote delivery addresses for speakers and spiritual gurus around the world. They are difficult to comprehend because they lack an operative definition. And that they are so inherently subjective in nature doesn't help matters either.

    The question is not whether we have an attitude shortage. The bigger question is where has the sense of being a human being disappeared?

    • Edward Hare
    • Director, Fortune 250 Manufacturer

    Of course we have an attitude problem. It worsens by the day, and attitudes are immensely difficult to move, unlike acquiring new skills. Re-read Charles Handy who said in 1996..."I worry that we are increasingly just using people. And people don't like being used." Hold that thought up against the BusinessWeek cover story of a few years later..."CEO Pay, Out of Control," and it's understandable why workers are tired of making new millionaires while their compensation falls and job security becomes a cute concept of days long past. Handy offers his 1 by 2 by 3 rule as a solution because it's balanced and can work for all. But today's management teams take steps that are only designed for one thing—their short-term compensation, not the long-term health of the enterprise and its human assets. The "attitude problem" is at the top, not at the bottom!

    • Stephanie Kensicki
    • Corporate Communications, Federated Group

    Unfortunately, there is sometimes a gap between what companies say they value and what they show they do. No company would disagree that they want employees that value teamwork, for instance. But that same company may promote someone who met his sales goals by bullying his coworkers. The key to fostering any kind of behavior in the workplace is to consistently reward it. Attitude should be no different.

    • Perry Miles

    Skills and attitude need a third leg: talent. Talent is firmware; the person cannot change it, although with good attitude he can sharpen limited talent into better skills than a more talented, less diligent competitor. Attitude, like skills, is software; it's better to get it off the shelf good to go, but it can be developed. An organization's culture is the most effective development tool. When I was in the Marine Corps, all of us wanted to be known as "good Marines" and that determined most of our attitudes. Jim Collins described companies with similar organizational cultures in his book, Built to Last. I agree with Prof. Heskett that good attitudes supercharge organizational performance beyond what the skill/talent level would indicate.

    • Francois Basili
    • President of and editor, <i>Thank God It's Monday!</i> newsletter

    I agree that it's not easy to develop a good attitude in people, and therefore it's easier to hire for attitude and train for skills. But it is possible for organizations to encourage the development and practice of good attitude/good behavior by creating a positive, respectful work culture that does not tolerate insensitivity to others or disrespect for them. It's a culture that is free from all forms of harassment, while it fosters open and honest communication, feedback, knowledge sharing, valuing of diversity, creativity, innovation, and teamwork. Such a culture can promote an atmosphere where a positive collaborative attitude is encouraged to develop.

    Focusing on creating a positive work culture will be a faster and more effective way than trying to train employees to individually develop positive attitude.

    • Anonymous

    In my past professional experience in three different regions of the world, I found that the attitude "it's just a job" is most prevalent in the U.S.

    The eagerness to please the employer (and by implication, the customer) is exhibited more strongly by the expatriate work force in the U.A.E (and the Middle East in general) and to a lesser degree by the indigenous work force in India. However, this is not always necessarily a true "customer is king" attitude that Gandhi espoused; it is more akin to sucking up to the boss (and those who might complain to the boss). Yet, the importance of that attitude is appreciated in those regions—a bit too much for my liking.

    However, I have found that the cool, efficient, professional way in which many Americans deal with their customers is only a defense against potentially pushy, unreasonable, and grabby customers. Americans do know how to strike a balance between the decent customers' needs and the employer's interests.

    In my personal case, any employer who has been generous enough to give me a chance despite my lack of impressive degrees or certificates has been immensely satisfied with their decision until they discovered that my empathy with the customer is a little bit too much!

    While employing, some "smart" U.S. employers do value attitude, but unfairly use the lack of degrees as an excuse for bringing down the salary. This is true everywhere. That attitude of the smart employer is what I wish would change. Whether the employer paid me more or less, my innate goodwill for the customer will not change—only for the employer. Strange but true. Maybe that genetic basis theory is worth taking a second look at.

    • Stever Robbins
    • President, Leadership Decisionworks, Inc.

    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, and their cultural norms are not managed or set explicitly. So attitudes continue to be set more through random chance and environment than through institutions that excel at sharing facts.

    Consider an institution with an ethics program that is not willing to confront students with their own unethical behavior, because it would "disrupt the program." They are sending a powerful message that ethics is second to inconvenience. Then they wonder why their graduates exhibit unethical behavior the moment it's inconvenient to be ethical.

    • S. Paliwal
    • Analyst

    Seeking out quality attitude (empathy, caring about the collective success, working to develop others) is key to long-term success, but it requires significant courage and confidence on the part of two players. The employee her/himself has to believe in this approach and believe that it is worthwhile, that it will produce success for the organization and for the individual, even if many in the organization ignore or even turn away from such an approach.

    Concomitantly, managers must recognize and foster this approach, but this typically will require empowerment. The employee with a quality attitude must have the latitude to exercise, develop, and utilize this attitude, and must thus be empowered, at least at times, to act outside of prescribed paths. I cannot help but wonder, however, if the typical manager is willing to empower, particularly when this means actually and truthfully relinquishing some power to the empowered. Real empowerment entails true ceding of some power, yet I can only imagine that this is unsettling to even the greatest of managers.

    • Zbigniew Becker
    • Project Manager, Academy of European Integration, Szczecin, Poland

    In this crazy age of impatience, short-term, short-lived success often preoccupies people's minds to the point of obsession. Economic education mostly stops at studying only isolated segments of impacts on human activities. Yet only a long-term and holistic approach makes sense.

    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. Most people are naturally capable of recognizing these facts, but it's a teacher's duty to find a way and mode of accessing students' hearts, suitable to here and now. The KSA trinity is not so dusty, as some novelty-crazy people might think. The Enrons and WorldComs provide tremendous opportunities for demonstrating how a lack of attitude has led to failures.

    • Tony
    • Management, Airline

    There is an increasing scarcity of talent with the attitudes that organizations are seeking. What is the root cause? The disappearance of the company that wants to keep its employees for their entire careers! Even Big Blue (IBM), the bastion of tradition, caved to the quick results of terminating employees, rather than controlling growth, planning for the worst, and using attrition or early retirement buyouts to alleviate their staffing problems.

    Contemporary workers have few feelings of duty or loyalty to their employers, hence the scarcity of attitude described. Unfortunately, with the knee-jerk reaction employed by large businesses in the past ten to fifteen years, the business world has created a workforce with an attitude of its own creation. I speak from experience: I am one of those people.

    • Steven Hitt
    • VP-Operations, American Marsh Pumps

    Over the last thirty years, the real difference I have seen in the success of a company is the "attitude culture" of the people. Not many leaders are skilled enough to create such a positive/cooperative attitude culture. I equate it to the relationship between knowledge and common sense. One without the other doesn't yield the best results. So it is with companies with talented people that can't work through issues together. I would take the right attitude over skills any day, assuming you have an organization that values training.

    • Ed Perret

    There are plenty of people with good attitudes in corporate America. Unfortunately, they are not in leadership.

    • Anonymous

    Attitude schmattitude...these people can't be serious! This is exactly what is driving us all into a wall: The silly, even presumptuous focus away from skills, knowledge, and results toward a quasi-feel-good myth.

    What is the "right" attitude anyway? "I'll know it when I see it?" Give me a break! I'll take a star with a bad attitude any day (e.g. Bobby Bonds and his 659 career homers). There are too few of them to go around in a society that increasingly wants the quick fixes, the quick lunch, and the fast buck even if it's built on a house of Enron cards where slick marketing continually supplants quality. Indeed, marketing has become our science—don't you think? If this continues, we will all soon be selling garbage with a smile.

    • Anonymous

    I fully agree with your attitude. I have only been here forty-seven days so my employees are still getting used to my style. [I'm amazed by] the look of total shock on their faces when I say something like "thank you, nice job," or "how do you think we should be doing this?" I do not want to put down the old department manager (now my boss). He is a great leader with his management staff but [thinks] the workers are too stupid to speak English well. I wish I could speak two to four languages as well as the "stupid workers" do.

    The hospital where I work offers free English classes yet no one was ever told about them. The day I handed out the forms, 82 percent of my people signed up. I gave the OK for all of them to take the class. It made doing the schedule lots of fun, but I have a very happy team of very good workers who I can understand. And when they finish the class they will be able to read and write English and at last be ready for promotions for which they are long overdue.

    • Mike Wyman
    • Director of Pharmacy, Sunset Community Health Center

    I believe the only thing that cannot be taught is attitude. However, corporate culture can play an immense role in the attitude of individual employees. With happy employees, a positive attitude will ensue. Of course, the whole trick is to make sure your employees are happy. In pharmacy, we have to make sure they are not overworked, and that they are treated professionally and with respect.

    In the world of retail pharmacy, patients use horrible language if their insurance fails. Doctors become upset when we disrupt their day. And store management is always upset because we make so much money for so little perceived work. As a pharmacy manager, I try to shield my employees from all of this in order to keep a positive attitude in the pharmacy. It's a daunting task, and I believe the shift in attitude is due to larger social forces than just looking at the stressed out technician with a line five patients deep, with the person in front cursing at her.

    • Rick Cohen
    • Senior Executive Recruiter, The Rick Cohen Network

    Attitudes are mercurial. Skills fade and need updating. What counts is commitment, loyalty, and trust, both up and down the chain of command. American business sends a constant message to those on the front line emphasizing overhead, then puzzles about where company loyalty has gone.

    You want to hire and retain good attitudes? As an executive recruiter, I see too many companies that think their employees are stupid, burdensome, or otherwise poorly valued. My advice is to remember that when you forget "your" people they're no longer yours—they're mine.

    • Art Warbelow (HBS DBA &lsquo;92)
    • President, Warbelow's Air Ventures, Inc.

    When we hire pilots, we hire for attitude and train for proficiency. We can train a pilot for proficiency, but changing his or her attitude is difficult. The tough part is assessing attitude in the job interview. And you are right; many companies (including mine) are not really sure what the attitude they are looking for might be in objective terms. It's a bit like porn: I can't assess it beforehand, but I [know it when I see it and] can tell you which of my long-term pilots have the attitude I want!

    • Bradburne Millett
    • Technical Writer, Wyeth Vaccines

    Most businesses live and die by measurements. 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?

    Most outfits measure what they can in terms of experience and education, but fail to capture many of those factors headed as "attitude." Cooperation across functional boundaries leaps out as one factor to measure, but doing it isn't as easy as it looks. Some environments reward cooperation and others don't.

    • Alex Donnini
    • President, HandsFree Networks

    Trust comes before attitude. Until employees at all levels regain "real" trust in the corporations they work for, any claim that employees have/should have a great attitude is just that.

    A corporation's attempts to instill a positive attitude will be successful only superficially, at best.

    • Arindam Mukherjee
    • Field Marketing Manager, Philips Medical Systems Nederland BV

    The difference that makes one flourish, cherish, and perish is attitude. Attitude can't be thrust upon anybody. It's a self-nourishing ingredient that an individual should possess. In today's corporate world, we should look at this fundamental aspect rather than focus heavily on skills and experience since these can be obtained over time. 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
    • President/COO, Cost Containment, LLC

    As a previous employee and successful manager at attitude-rich organizations like Hewlett-Packard and Agilent Technologies, I believe attitudes and best practices can be learned. Companies with strong cultures can pass down these attitudes and approaches— and the behaviors they drive to employees—through a combination of role-modeling and value-building education.

    Some of the most valuable learning activities in my over-twenty-six-year corporate career have been those that consciously draw the correlation between values, attitudes, and performance. Most of the time, for me, this occurred on the job through excellent coaching and role modeling from caring managers and mentors. But some of my best "ah-has!" and breakthroughs came to me from structured group learning events that helped me understand the relationship between values, attitudes, desired behaviors—and results. Examples include the Myers-Briggs personality type model, the Process of Management class at HP, and the Achieving Breakthrough Service course at HBS.

    I believe corporate America today is over-emphasizing short-term results at any price, for some very obvious and urgent short-term reasons. I still believe the best NPV for everyone in the longer term will come from cultures that manage for results by focusing on methods. It takes extremely strong leadership for this to work.

    Attitudes can be learned, and winning behaviors fostered, with principle-centered management and a conscious investment in value-based employee development. After all, we're not born as great team players and leaders. We develop into them as we grow!

    • Stephanie L. Carey
    • Account Executive, Noville

    Because I am in sales, I am hypersensitive to good and bad customer service, the latter of which I seem to see more often. With regard to attitude and the medical profession, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago. Her attending physician recommended a full mastectomy. He told her that she did not need them anyway. Who knows where he learned this attitude, but the problem is that his attitude was not seen as a problem in the medical community.

    The attitudes of airline representatives have ruffled a few people's feathers over the years. To me, it is a combination of a culture that does not put the customer first and the wrong hiring.

    Last week, [a major airline] called to tell me that my travel plans had changed. I had used hard-earned frequent flier miles for a trip to Nantucket. After being put on hold for thirty minutes (no exaggeration), I was told I could return three days earlier—according to the airline's schedule, or I could fly out of Boston back to Newark. When I called back the next week to find out…what the airline was going to do for me, the supervisor I spoke to was incredulous that I would even ask the question. His stock response was that the airline changes its schedule all the time. I inquired whether I could be credited for frequent flier miles or the cost of the trip to Boston. What do you think the answer was? This is because the airline is not set up to "hug their customers" and I was speaking with a porcupine, a combination of bad culture and poor hiring.

    • Pamela Woodnick
    • Principal, InterAct Consulting Group

    Today in my Managerial Communication class (Northeastern, M.A. program in accounting) my students worked on an organizational behavior case study. They were all quite shocked when the hotshot young manager who had the best bottom-line results didn't get promoted because he was felt to be a renegade and not a team player. This spawned a conversation about attitude, "corporate citizenship," the power of management, etc. They left with a great deal to ponder about the work world they are entering.

    As an HR senior professional for twenty-plus years, I have spent hours trying to convince management that we should hire for attitude, much to my frustration. So many managers are afraid that attitude is too "soft," too difficult to assess and to use as a key hiring criteria. I am looking for a company that agrees with you (and me). When you find one, will you let me know?

    • Jack Liu
    • HR Manager, Ark-Les China

    I totally agree with the author according to my past hiring experience. I would like to add one point: For those who just graduated from university or just have a few years' working experience, it is easier to develop or reshape your attitude.

    • Khadija Khan
    • General Manager&mdash;Monitoring, Evaluation and Research, Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund

    Greetings from Pakistan. It was a real pleasure being in your session at HBS SPNM last month. You have hit upon a subject that truly needs a lot of deliberation before coming to concrete conclusions. It is a soft issue. However, collection of empirical data may help.

    We at the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund do experience situations where grave attitude problems exist. As a development nonprofit organization, we focus on not only picking talent with positive attitudes, but also with providing an environment to develop that kind of attitude. However, it is hard to identify attitude problems in a short interview process. One innovative approach that we use is to organize a collective activity for a day or two, such as a workshop with diverse participation and ask prospective candidates looking for executive positions to join in before finally short-listing them for the interview. You really do not need a psychologist to find out who has a desirable attitude towards the issue of poverty as well as towards people (colleagues, partners, clients, i.e., in our case—poor communities and community organizations). It has worked wonderfully so far for PPAF.

    It may not be possible, perhaps, for other organizations to follow the above-mentioned approach, as it costs money. We at PPAF believe that this investment is worth making as it pays in the long run in building our institution.

    • Anonymous

    Attitude can be taught and is sometime contagious. ... Attitude comes from values instilled by society and the community. As long as we support socially irresponsible acts, the production of good-attitude employees will be dismal.

    • Anonymous

    It has been said: "Hired for your competencies, fired for your attitude."

    While the article has a resonance, I would suggest that all too often organizations are not clear about what behaviors they want to foster or how to foster them.

    Complex competence frameworks seem increasingly popular in larger organizations and seem to be being used in lieu of a clear vision, mission, and values modeled and communicated by the senior managers across the organization.

    The combination of attitude, skills, and knowledge is key in recruitment but requires a degree of clarity about what is wanted/needed.

    Clearly, knowledge and skills can be taught and developed. Attitude can be fostered and modeled. My experience in staff development suggests people can develop new/different attitudes. To do so takes encouragement, coaching, and leadership rather than teaching or telling. I would suggest that most people could develop new attitudes in the workplace with positive or negative consequences. The art is to create a positive majority.

    • Meenal Dandavate
    • Commercial Relationship Manager, HSBC Bank

    There is no attitude shortage. There is an attitude difference, and an indifferent attitude is usually observed in most organizations today. Even in those that are considered customer-centric.

    Attitude can be genetic only to a degree. It certainly can be cultivated consciously, but mostly it has the tendency to flow/cascade from the top down. From large business corporations to small family-owned enterprises, the boss' attitude is carried down the line. If the top manager or entrepreneur is arrogant, the employees are arrogant; and if the boss is polite and customer-service oriented, the front-line staff is smiling, polite, and problem solving! There can be pockets of different attitudes among different sections and teams within a department, and nothing will change it unless the attitude-giver and attitude-taker decide so!

    ... I do believe that a positive attitude can be developed. The responsibility for that lies not just with institutions imparting knowledge, but also with the learner. One must want to have a winning attitude.

    • B. V. Krishnamurthy
    • Executive Vice-President and Professor of Strategy, Alliance Business Academy, Bangalore, India

    If I were to identify the single most important characteristic that I would look for in a potential or current employee, my unambiguous answer would be attitude.

    For twenty-five years now, I have observed people at work in different countries and different industries of varying sizes. An amazing common thread is that while people with only moderate talent but with excellent attitude succeed in whatever they undertake, people with a much higher degree of talent/skills but with no matching attitude fail miserably.

    In order to accept such a premise, we would have to define what attitude is all about. I would sum it up as:

    1. A passion for continued learning.

    2. A passion to leave a stamp of excellence on any work.

    3. The humility to accept that what we know is a miniscule fraction compared to what we do not know.

    There might be other factors too, but I would submit that these three would constitute a minimum requirement. Part of this attitude is obviously genetic and is further shaped by our early experiences. My experience with students in management education suggests that with diligent effort, it is possible to mold attitudes that would be useful throughout one's career. It is a formidable challenge and requires the total and unconditional commitment on the part of all those with whom students interact—faculty, support staff, administrators—to name a few.

    It is a challenge that must be accepted and addressed in all sincerity. The future of humankind might depend on it. We just cannot afford to fail the young people with whom we are privileged to be associated.