Change attitudes to change behavior, right? Not so fast. Before you spend your time and money to measure attitudes – read this.

There are three things leaders should know about attitudes and behavior.

1. Behavior is a much more accurate predictor of attitude than the reverse. It turns out that attitudes often have an element of rationalization.

2. Causes of behavior are multiple, indeed myriad. The two largest categories are  context and individual characteristics. If you are running a business, the most important factor under your control is context.

3. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, regardless of its cause.

Several years ago the General Manager of a warehouse was struggling because he had people from three distinct ethnic groups working in the facility. Each group had some distinct behaviors that reflected their culture and but for one, these were not problematic. Indeed, the employees had started to share stories, food and to make friends with each other. The sticking point was that one of the groups began to get a reputation for being “messy” and “careless” which were being attributed to their culture. In a warehouse environment, messy and careless is a risk factor, so it was taken seriously. When I asked what people meant by this, he wasn’t sure but he knew it had something to do with the restrooms and he was too embarrassed to ask for details. He also didn’t know at the time that the issue was limited to the restrooms. The issue had grown to be more global than it was. Nonetheless, he wanted me to help change the attitudes of this particular group so they would be more “buttoned up.” He didn’t want to lose the generally cooperative environment that had been built up over time.

I met with several people and talked about the tensions between the groups and it quickly became obvious what the problem was. One group was observing a religious practice of prayer and washing before doing so. They simply didn’t realize how much water they were leaving on the floor and counters. Once I explained to them that the others found it disturbing, they committed to make sure they didn’t leave water on the floor or counters. True to their word, they immediately changed their behavior. Problem solved.

Right? Not so fast. The behavior changed, but the attributions others made about them were more stubborn. Some were so sure they were right that this group was careless we had to deal with that. We did and save the one troublemaker who was fired (he actually became threatening), things settled down.

The issue here is typical – working at the level of attitudes is fraught with difficulty. It’s far easier, faster and more accurate to observe patterns of behavior and correlate them with outcomes. No need to psychoanalyze or measure personality or attitudes. Fortunately if you are running a business, you have huge opportunity to observe behaviors and to influence people based on what you see.

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