Attitude can’t be enforced

“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, my first home

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.