Behavior Matters More than Attitude

Christopher Witt —  May 15, 2017

Behavior is more important than attitudeThere’s a lot of talk in business circles about the importance of attitude at work.

And it’s assumed that having the right attitude—a positive attitude—is essential to success.

Most coaches—like most self-help advice and motivational speakers—focus on changing people’s attitude.

As a business coach, I find it helpful to address people’s behavior, not their attitude.

Three Reasons Why Behavior Matters More than Attitude

1. Attitude is fuzzy and ill-defined. Behavior is concrete and specific.

According to the dictionary, attitude is a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a person’s behavior. Which is clear enough.

But when people try to define someone’s (bad) attitude, they resort to vague generalities.

They say the person is negative, hyper-critical, unfriendly, uncooperative, or unmotivated.

Which doesn’t help me as a coach or the person being criticized understand what change is being sought or how to bring it about.

When I press them to describe the person’s problematic behavior, they get specific.

They say the person withholds information, comes late to work, talks in a condescending tone of voice, makes the same mistake time and again even after being corrected, or harps on what could go wrong with a proposal without offering constructive suggestions.

When describing a person’s behavior, they give detailed examples—emails the person has sent, comments made at meetings, attendance records—specific, concrete actions that I can work with.

2. Attitude is slow to change. Behavior can turn on a dime.

According to the definition above, attitude is a settled way of thinking or feeling.

Synonyms for settled are established, fixed, entrenched, permanent, ingrained, deep rooted.

Which means that an attitude doesn’t change quickly or easily.

If people are, for example, naturally pessimistic—and some people are naturally pessimistic—they’re not going to adopt a happy-go-lucky-anything-is-possible-let’s-give-it-a-try-and-hope-for-the-best attitude overnight. Or in the next couple of months. Or maybe ever.

But they can change their behavior—what they say and do—in a moment.

Pessimists, for example, may always expect things to go wrong, but they can refrain from immediately dumping on someone’s proposal. They can frame their response in terms not of what’s wrong with the idea, but of how it can be improved.

3. Attitude is personal. Behavior is impartial.

When you criticize a person’s attitude, it’s hard for them not to take it personally.

“I don’t like your attitude” sounds a lot like “I don’t like you.” And “You’ve got a bad attitude” sounds like “You’re a bad person.” Which is never a good way to start a conversation, if you want people to be receptive to what you’re saying or to the changes you want them to make.

It’s better to describe the person’s behavior (giving specific examples) and then to explain why that behavior has to change and how you want it to change. Not “I need you to change,” but “I need your behavior to change.”

The funny thing is, as people change their behavior and as they make those changes habitual, they gradually change their attitude. A little. Which, in turn, reinforces their changed behavior.

Attitude is important. Behavior is more important.

Agree or disagree?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

2 responses to Behavior Matters More than Attitude

  1. Richard Procter May 16, 2017 at 9:24 AM

    Nice bit of wisdom from the sagacious Chris Witt. I’d push this even further. Most people believe they need the right attitude to behave a certain way. The classic is, “I need to feel inspired before I can do my creative writing assignment.” Working artists know the opposite is true — you can behave your way into the right attitude. Don’t feel like writing? Sit down and start, then keep going. Pretty soon you’ve forgotten why you didn’t feel like it, and you’re in the ‘flow’ of creativity.

    Thanks, Chris!

    • Rich,

      Thanks for sharing your insights. I think actions repeated over and over again become behavior (habitual actions), which shape our character and motivation. We don’t have a lot of direct control over our character/motivation. It’s not as if there’s an independent “I” that can work on improving/changing a separate entity we call character. We can change our actions.

      Hope you’re well in these crazy times.