Attitude can’t be enforced – it must be inspired

“Can we change their attitude?”

“No.”

“Can they change their own attitude?”

“Yes.”

“So, what is our goal? To change their attitude, or to convince them that they need to change it themselves?”

“That is challenging, difficult, will take sweat and tears……….do I really want to even try it?”

“Ah! We are now at the root of the problem and it is: Do I want to change my own attitude?”

Attitude is at the root of everything. Attitude decides whether we will succeed or fail. Whether when in difficulty, even that which seems to be life threatening, if we will survive or perish. Attitude decides if when hit by life (or by someone) we stay down or get up. And how many times we get up. And what the result of getting up every time we fall, will be. Attitude, not wealth, dictates happiness. If you don’t believe me, watch slum children leaping into pools of rainwater after the first rains. Do they look happy? Then go and watch your children, who will most likely be complaining about the rain. And ask yourself, “Who has more wealth?” I know that is a dumb question, but then to decide to remain dumb is an attitude issue. To decide to remain blind, even though we have eyes is an attitude issue. To witness a crime in progress and to decide to take a video to post on Instagram, instead of taking action to prevent the crime or to help the victim, is a matter of attitude. Cherophobia (the fear of being ‘too happy’ because you feel that if you allow yourself to feel happy, then disaster will strike), is a matter of attitude. Satisfaction, gratitude, ambition, courage, compassion are all attitudes. So also, are their opposites. And each one has an impact on our life.

The first Kural in Thirukkural is:

Agara mudhala ezhuthellam aadhi
bhagavan mudhatrey ulagu

(As Agara – A – is the first letter of the alphabet, so also God is before all creation)

In the same way, attitude comes before all situations and circumstances and decides how they will affect us. Incidentally, another A-word; affect. Let me tell you some stories to illustrate what I mean.

It was 1987 and I was doing a course at XLRI, Jamshedpur. One evening my friends decided to show me the sights around Jamshedpur. As we drove in the Hindustan Ambassador car, which was provided for us, the road suddenly deteriorated. My friend announced, “This is where Jamshedpur ends, and Bihar begins.” We continued onwards, headed towards Dimna lake and bird sanctuary. This is a lake made by Tata Steel and provides drinking water to Jamshedpur. On the way we stopped at a traffic light. The road was a patchwork of potholes joined together by bits of tarmac to prove that once upon a time when the world was young, it had been surfaced with bitumen. As I was contemplating life and its trials, a young boy came coasting down the slope on his bicycle a bit oblivious to his situation and hit a pothole, bounced out of it and yelled, ‘Wah! Kya khadda hai!’ (Wow! What a pothole!). Today I am writing this on July 13, 2019, 32 years later, but the incident is fresh in my memory. I remind myself that nothing changed for that kid or for me. The road, the potholes, the responsibility of the government, the use of taxes, you name it, everything remained the same. Yet that kid decided to be happy. So, when he hit a pothole, he appreciated the pothole instead of complaining. A matter of attitude.

In my view the best thing about attitude is that it is entirely in my control. Nobody can give it to me or take it from me or change it for me or do anything at all with my attitude. I, and only I, can have whatever attitude I want to. So only I, can decide if I want to be sad, glad, bad, mad or whatever. That means that until I want to change it, nobody can help me and if I want to change it, nobody can stop me. That is power.

In 1978, soon after I finished graduation with a BA in history, political science and Urdu literature, I boarded a flight for Guyana where my father was on a one-year assignment, with the Guyana Mining Enterprise hospital in Linden. It was a long flight and a long story. I flew from Hyderabad to Bombay to London to New York to Miami to Georgetown which took more than 24 hours. I flew in a SE 210 Caravelle, Boeing 707, McDonnell Douglas DC-10, and Boeing 707 once again. I flew on Indian Airlines, British Airways, Pan Am (Pan American World Airways), Delta and BWIA. And at the end of it all, more than 24 hours after I left Hyderabad, I arrived literally at the other end of the world, without my baggage. My baggage apparently had other travel plans and I have no idea which country it was destined for. But for me that meant that not only did I get to lose all my worldly possessions but also the proof of my education, my degree certificate, which I had kept in my checked-in baggage for safety.  

Guyana memories

I should have been devastated. I wasn’t. It took me about ten minutes to come to terms with the fact that I was walking with all my worldly assets, the shirt on my back. I found this was a very liberating idea. In Guyana I got a job, lived and worked in a small mining town in the middle of the rainforest. My experience of the five years that I spent there was far from negative. It was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding periods of my life during which I made lifelong friendships, had many unique experiences, and learnt a huge amount about human relations and conflict management which has stood me in good stead throughout my career, now many decades later. I will talk about those days in context in the articles and podcasts that will come later but want to say that all this happened because of the way I approached the challenge.

For one thing, I didn’t see it as a ‘challenge = difficulty’, at all. I saw it as the possibility to have great fun and great learning, each day filled with new possibilities. I was in a new country, totally new (alien!!) culture, food, climate, language, working with people who were completely different from me in every way, living in a part of the world that I had never been in and which was as different from my life in Hyderabad as to make it seem like I was on another planet. Yet it turned out to be one of the best periods of my life which I recall very fondly today, more than forty years later. The reason was attitude.

Attitude therefore is how you choose to see what you are faced with. You can choose to appreciate the good in it and enjoy it and to see the difficulties as you look at weights in the gym; something that is tough to lift but can only benefit you if you do. Who makes that choice? You.

Back home in India, I worked in the plantation industry for ten years, managing tea, and rubber plantations with coffee, cardamom, coconut and vanilla thrown in, before striking out into the field of leadership consulting. During my last three years in the company, I was posted as Manager of the company’s operations in Kanyakumari District in Tamilnadu. That comprised of two rubber estates, two factories and a higher secondary school. The challenge there was the labor force, which was highly militant, unionized, communist union (CITU – Marxist) and a history of tension between the management and union. To spice up my life I had an immediate task of introducing Controlled Upward Tapping (CUT) in rubber. This involved the tappers using special tapping knives to tap upwards instead of the normal downward tap. This put a strain on their shoulders and initially it could be uncomfortable, even painful, until they got used to it. The standard response to this was to refuse to do it. That led to tensions and some ugly situations before I got there, including an Assistant Manager having been grievously assaulted. My challenge was to get the workers to accept this method of tapping, which meant that I had to convert their dislike and resistance to liking. To change their attitude from resistance to acceptance.

I spoke to another company in Kerala who were using this technique and had good results. I requested their management to allow me to send my tappers to visit them to see their tapping, meet their tappers and talk to them about the technique. I wanted them to do this freely without any supervision, so I didn’t go with them. I sent them in a bus and arranged for them to have a nice sumptuous meal with their hosts and to be given CUT knives as a take-away gift (for which we paid). I told them to go and see the work, ask any questions that they wanted to ask their compatriots and satisfy themselves that this method was a good method for them to earn more income as well as something which would not be difficult to do after they had gotten used to the new angle of tapping. All this was treated with suspicion to begin with, given the history of management labor relations, but I expected that and didn’t react to it. However, the prospect of a company paid holiday was tempting and unique and so they went. After that, as they say, the rest is history. They returned enthusiastic about trying out the new technique and when they saw that as promised, their yield was better resulting in better earning, there was nothing more for me to do.

What I had been able to do was to get them tuned into the channel that everyone listens to; WiiFM (What’s in it For Me). That is the key to attitude change. Get people to see what’s in the change for them. Help them to see how they will benefit. Naturally they must really benefit. It is not a PR exercise. If there is really no benefit, then you will lose credibility big time if you try to sell it. But it happens often that people don’t see the benefit until you can show it to them. Once they see how they will gain by changing their attitude, it happens easily enough. The challenge is for us to show it to them.

What is essential for the one wanting to bring about attitude change is to put himself into the shoes of the other and see their world through their eyes. I had a very interesting experience in this context. I was doing a series of coaching skills workshops for senior management at ICRISAT in Hyderabad. This required helping people understand the fact that you can never coach anyone effectively if you don’t see their world through their eyes. In other words, you need to put yourself in their shoes. To illustrate this, I took off my shoes and said to the Deputy Director General, the most senior manager who was sitting right in front, “Please get into my shoes.”

He got up very reluctantly and started to take his shoes off. I stopped him when he had taken one shoe off. I asked him, “What are you doing?”

He looked surprised and replied rather testily, “Taking off my shoes.”

I asked, “Why?”

He looked really exasperated and said, “How else can I get into your shoes?” Then it suddenly dawned on him and he almost yelled, “Wah! What an insight!! I can never get into your shoes until I take my own shoes off. Wah! Sahab Wah!”

It is often as simple as that. The lesson is simple but very powerful.

If we want to change people’s attitudes, we need to first change our own. We must own up that we need to see their world as they see and feel it. We must empathize and understand. Then we need to show them how they will benefit from the change. Only then will it happen.

In terms of formal leadership roles, one of the biggest challenges of the commanding officer is to influence positively the attitude of those under his/her command. Many try to use authority. All that they get is outward compliance. Just because someone answers, “Yessah!” with a salute doesn’t mean that he/she truly accepts what you ordered them to do or that they will do it when they are not supervised. We are all aware of the theory, “It is the arm that salutes, not the heart.” That is why I say, “Values can’t be legislated (commanded). They must be inculcated.” And that is the reason attitude is critical. Attitude is what you do because of who you are. Not because of your job, rank or training but because of the truth of your being. That is why attitude inspires far more than any passionate speech or any order from on-high. People don’t care what you say, until they see what you do.

Attitude is what Dr. Kafeel of Gorakhpur had, when though he was not even on duty, he decided to take charge when he was informed that the government hospital where he worked had run out of oxygen and the lives of children who needed oxygen, were at stake. He spent his own funds to buy oxygen and managed to save the lives of over 200 of them. In organizational life, we have many stories to tell of people who decided to take ownership of the situation and in the absence of orders and sometimes even in contravention of them, they did the right thing. Many paid a price for it, but their stand inspires us to this day. The thing to remember is that even if they had succumbed to pressure, they would have paid a price. A price which in real terms, would have been far higher. There is no such thing as a free choice. Every choice has a price tag. We are free to choose between price tags. That is the reason why we need to record and preserve such stories, because they are real, involve real people like us and are beacons of guidance and proof of concept that IT CAN BE DONE.

 What are the attitudes that are critical for us to have? They are three.

Courage: Courage is the first. Courage is the willingness to stand up against opposing danger or force. The greater the opposing force, greater the courage needed. Courage is physical but even more importantly it is moral. Moral courage comes before physical courage and is often its motive force. Moral courage is called upon far more often than physical courage in our lives because the pressure on us is from those who have higher authority, direct or indirect. They don’t necessarily threaten our life or safety, but they threaten our careers. Yet we must have the courage to stand up to their threats, open or implied.

But stand up on what basis? On the basis of truth.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “When the truth must be spoken, silence is culpable.”

Truth: Truth is the unshakable belief that truth comes first and over and above anyone else. The duty of every citizen is to uphold the truth in his/her own life. For this, we are accountable and answerable to society. And though society may not have the tools and structures to demand this accountability in a formal manner, it does enforce it very powerfully by giving or withholding respect and moral authority. Moral authority is the reward for moral courage. Without moral authority you may get rank, but you will never have power. Rank is bestowed. Power is earned. The Establishment bestows rank. People give you power. Without power, the badge of rank is costume jewelry.

Compassion: The ability to see yourself in the suffering of others. In the words ascribed to Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, who twice served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, “There but for the Grace of God, goes Disraeli.” He reportedly said that on looking at a homeless man in rags. It is not known what he did thereafter, but the statement shows that he saw himself, at least momentarily, in the other less fortunate man. Compassion is not only to see but to do something about that, to alleviate the suffering, lift the oppression and deliver the justice being denied to the other. Compassion, above anything else, differentiates us as humans in the best possible terms. Compassion means that we stand against oppression even when it doesn’t affect us personally. Compassion means that we go out of our way, take the pain and the trouble and if necessary, pay the price to fight for the rights of others. Compassion is a fundamental value, a core strength and a key resource, without which we simply can’t function effectively and honorably. Compassion is the result of courage and commitment to the truth. Compassion wins hearts, inspires cooperation, builds a reputation, enhances influence and is the best protection.

This is the value of these three, interlinked attitudes: courage based on truth, tempered with compassion. Truth gives courage its backbone and compassion ensures that it is applied in a way that is caring, respectful and kind.

Finally, I must reiterate that attitudes can’t be legislated. They must be inculcated. We can’t simply order people, “You must be courageous. You must be truthful. You must be compassionate.” We must show them how, by demonstrating courage, truthfulness and compassion ourselves in our everyday actions. We must remember that people listen with their eyes. They don’t care what we say, until they see what we do.