There is no substitute for the right attitude at work. Some people just have it, some never will, and the rest of us are just bouncing up and down and learning as we go.
But how much of that is true?
We can all list common attributes of a good attitude to work, but how much difference does it make, where does it come from, and how easy is it to change?
The answer to the mysteries of work mindsets – good and otherwise – begins with the impact of attitude and how it’s made.
Why attitude beats aptitude every time
These days, a positive attitude regularly comes top of an employer’s shopping list, with passion, optimism and resilience preferred to skills and experience. You don’t hire for skills, says author and speaker Simon Sinek. You hire for attitude, as you can always teach skills.
A great work attitude can be many things. You might have a good baseline of positivity, be action-oriented, persistent, curious or adaptable. When we talk about the ‘the right attitude’ in a business context, there are many qualities that fit, depending on the requirements of the role and the business.
The Five Factor Model used to measure personality focuses on a different combination of characteristics: agreeableness, openness, extroversion, neuroticism and conscientiousness. To different degrees in all of us, these play into our long- and short-term attitudes at work.
Once you see what a positive mindset brings to the work environment, you know why it’s so highly prized. It boosts our ability to cope with stress, our creativity and innovation, our teamwork and our leadership skills. On the flipside, negative attitudes in the workplace can result in disengagement, lower productivity and culture disruption. The most important thing about attitudes, for companies at least, is that they’re contagious. Bad news for bad attitudes, but that feature makes positive mindsets even more valuable.
But is it really easier to teach skills than change our attitude? Not if you believe that only some parts of our mindset are rigid, and others are in perpetual motion every day.
A new way to look at attitude
According to a 2006 study, the ways we think about and respond to our work are shaped by a mix of environmental factors, role stressors and our personality.
You’ve probably felt how issues like childcare worries, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, or even dehydration have stopped you getting your head in the game. Job related factors like financial wellbeing, autonomy and purpose are variables that shape our attitude at work too, but what I’m really interested in is how our personality drives our work mindset.
Interestingly, research has shown that some of our attitudes are more likely to be inherited, and some learned. Your attitude to religion, capital punishment, rollercoasters or athletic activity is more likely to be genetically determined, and harder to change, though not impossible. Whereas your attitude to things like assertiveness, leadership or self-consciousness about your looks is more likely to be learned, and therefore easier to change.
In the organisation psychology game, the trait v state debate has been bubbling on for a while. It’s easy to characterize someone’s attitude as “that’s just Amanda, she’s a positive person” or “Joe’s always been like that”. But the truth is more complex and actually more helpful to us.
A trait is our personality ‘mean’, an average attitude that is stable, from which we may deviate because of or in respond to our environment. Traits are important because they’re predictable and correlate with performance and satisfaction. States are important too, because it means we aren’t robots. We react to things and respond to things, yet we also have a degree of control over how things make us feel.
For me, the way trait and state feed into attitude is nothing but upside. Zig Ziglar said “there is no such thing as a lazy person. He is either sick or uninspired” and you could say that about other attitudes. A lack of positivity at work is a symptom, rather than an inherited trait. Something is not right, and our brains usually respond by behaving in a way that either protects us, or gives us a sense of control, even if it’s unhelpful. I find it useful to treat positive mindsets the same. Except for people who’ve done the work, positive attitudes are often a product of experience and learning, rather than some innate quality that’s always been there and always will be.
So, what do these different ways of looking at attitudes and behaviours mean for the working world, and our approach to recruitment and ongoing professional development?
Some of the traits that fit the idea of good attitude will always be coveted by companies. But if only some of our mindset is inherited, the rest is up for grabs.
How to shift a work attitude
It’s obviously in each of our interests to nurture a positive attitude at work. It’s clearly in every employer’s interests too, which is why many are looking to wellbeing to help workers feel and perform to their best, combat stress, reduce absenteeism and avoid the post-covid ‘turnover tsunami’ predicted by the Society for Human Resource Management.
It all starts with the company you keep
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s 2021 survey, 50% of employers now have a well-being strategy. The same survey from 2022 found that 60% of HR professionals believed line managers have bought into the importance of well-being, down from 67% the previous year.
Alongside well-being, a Google study has identified other key dynamics that feed into a good attitude to our work and enhance our performance. Our work has to have meaning and impact, goals and plans must be clear, and we need to be able to depend on each other. Most of all, we need psychological safety – an environment where we can take risks without fear of shame or failure.
If you find a role and culture that’s a good fit for your personality, and you’re doing something that aligns with your purpose, then you’re far more likely, in general, to have a positive attitude to your work. That’s a short but ambitious bucket list of factors, and not always realistic one. So, what can we do as individuals, while we are trying to solve for purpose in our professional lives?
Attitudes to attitudes have changed, and fortunately, we’ve come a long way since the days of stiff upper lips, gritting our teeth and cracking on. Suppression and distraction don’t work, they just delay the inevitable. Strategies like exercise, controlled breathing and visualization often do help create a good attitude at work, though to me they feel more like workarounds than solutions. I’m looking for something a bit deeper, on a path less trodden. But first, a negative point about positive thinking.
1. Just be positive!
Smile more! Stop complaining! Happiness is a choice!
There may be a bit of science underpinning these old ‘positive mental attitude’ hacks and I’m not saying they don’t work, but to me they feel dated and a little simplistic. There’s also a case to be made that some advice on positive thinking for work falls into the category of ‘toxic positivity’. I’ve not come across the term before, but I understand the concept that forced positivity denies our feelings, creates unrealistic expectations and can, ironically, further damage our self-esteem.
Scratch that then. Let’s start this listicle with a new #1.
2. Have a word with yourself
There’s no more important relationship in the workplace than the one we have with ourselves. The story we tell ourselves – about our personality, our strengths and weaknesses, and our impact on others – often comes true, because our brains behave it into existence.
What psychologists called ‘self-talk’ is a big contributor to our attitudes to work and life. The inner dialogue doesn’t just have the ability to empower us or drag us down. It can set us on a path for the rest of the day.
Studies have shown that self-talk is particularly effective for new tasks, rather than work you can do with your eyes shut, because as you meet new challenges and doubt yourself, the voice can reframe negative into positive.
3. Reframe the negatives
I may have poured scorn on bumper sticker positivity, but actually there are some clichés that are put to good use in sports every day. By reframing the challenges we face and our negative response, these tactics help us explore questions like ‘how is my attitude serving me?’ and ‘what other perspectives might there be?’
- Pressure and stress can be a useful signal: As Billie Jean King said, “Pressure is a privilege, it only comes to those who earn it”. In a performance situation at least, if you’re feeling the pressure, it could signify the work is important to you.
- Failure is the best way to learn: There are so many great quotes about embracing failure that it’ll be an epic fail to settle for just one or two. But here’s my favorite. “Every strike” said Babe Ruth, “brings me closer to the next home run.”
- You don’t ‘have to’, you ‘get to’: It may sound trite to suggest that instead of ‘having to do’ something, you ‘get to do’ it, but the perspective and gratitude behind this trending mindset shifter can help us zoom out and see the bigger picture and the hidden opportunities.
4. Reach out more often – it’s good for everyone
We’re not always the best judge of ourselves, because our brain protects us from painful truths. So how do we find the self-awareness necessary to correct for any malfunction that stop us being at our best?
They say positivity and negativity are both contagious, so it makes sense that those at risk of infection are best placed to ensure we catch the right bug. Your boss might have some insight into your ‘traits and states’, but no one has more insight on who you are today than your peers. We spend most of our time with our colleagues, we have shared experience with them, and hopefully we trust their judgement too.
Peer feedback is a hot topic in business, as it gives you priceless, unvarnished truths from those who know you best. As a self-employed writer periodically wracked with the usual imposter syndrome and self-doubt, I can’t put a value on having someone to listen, to give me an outside perspective that I trust, and to help me reflect on my attitude at work, which is why I’d pay triple what my co-working space costs. By ‘sacrificing’ time at the start of every morning, I gain a day I could have lost.
Reaching out for a trusted perspective isn’t a one-way street either. It’s also gift, not a burden. They don’t have to help. They get to help!
Most advice on work attitudes promotes the value of having a positive mindset and cautions about those who don’t. Steer clear, as they aren’t good for you or the team. ‘Move cubicles if you have to.’ First off, cubicles? Just no.
I’m still sceptical of both sides – the demonisation of attitudes that don’t fit someone’s neat idea of what works, and that positive mental attitude is a silver bullet that can instantly turn your frown upside down.
For now, my working theory attitude in the workplace is that all of us are susceptible to temporary negative mindsets, that positive mantras are often too simplistic, and that understanding the epidemiology of attitude – how they gestate, percolate and circulate – is critical if we’re to hit the next pitch out of the park.