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Madness as Usual

Why you should avoid to speak about ‘Attitude’

  • Stefan Kühl
  • Tuesday, 23. August 2022
© Alexandra Kern

Those who advocate new approaches to management rarely suffer from false modesty. In the face of the crises of modern society, they claim, it is not enough to promise ‘new initiatives’, ‘new processes’, or ‘new structures’ – no, what is needed goes far beyond that. We require a ‘new way of thinking’ and a ‘new self’. It does not suffice to change the ‘structures’ of an organization; the very ‘selves’ of the people within it must be changed to lift them up to the ‘next level of development’.

The term that accompanies the creation of this ‘new self’ that is so well prepared for any challenges that might arise is ‘attitude’. An attitude, it is claimed, is a conviction made up of insights, patterns of thinking, and values, which has the effect of governing the actions of an individual. In the case of attitudes, then, we are not just interested in the individual’s views or opinions; rather, the attitude, or, as managers often refer to it, the ‘mindset’, must clearly reveal itself in the individual’s actual actions.

But ‘attitude’ is one of those terms, like ‘trust’ or ‘esteem’, that sounds suspicious when it is the object of self-praise – ‘I am proud of my attitude’ – or, especially, in the context of demands directed at others: ‘You need to change your attitude.’ In such cases, the implication is that the speaker has already developed an appropriate ‘attitude’ towards the present challenges, whereas others are lagging.

There is a simple reason for the overuse of the term ‘attitude’ by managers. It provides a straightforward explanation for the difficulties they face when trying to introduce new organizational structures within their companies, administrations, or hospitals. If the introduction of a more agile form of organizational structure does not have the desired result, then it is because the employees have not yet developed a sufficiently agile ‘mindset’. If self-organizing teams are not yet functioning in the way that management expects them to function, then it is because the members of the team do not have a sufficiently agile ‘attitude’.

It is hard not to be reminded of the complaints that used to come from the leaders of socialist states, who attributed any and all difficulties to the fact that changing the ‘attitudes’ of the people of an once capitalist society took time. Economic bottlenecks affecting the supply of goods were the fault not of the socialist planned economy itself but of the people, who were not yet thinking in terms of the general good. Similarly, any political protest was seen not as an expression of legitimate grievance but as evidence that people’s ‘mindsets’ still had to change.

A Case of Personalization

Sociologists describe the obsession with ‘attitude’ in the management literature as a case of ‘personalization’. It is not only in everyday life that we are inclined to explain difficulties, tensions, and disappointments by pointing the finger at some of the people involved – by assuming that it must be someone’s fault, whether because he is ‘ambitious, selfish, lazy, or vain’, or because he is ‘incompetent and lacking experience’. Réne Girard (1986) has shown that this creation of scapegoats through a personalization of responsibility can also be applied to society at large. And in organizations this process is especially pronounced.

Such imputations of personal blame no doubt sometimes serve an important purpose. Because there are many individuals within organizations, there is always someone who can be held responsible for a problem and holding someone responsible for a mistake makes it possible to ignore the mistake itself. Personalization thus relieves the organization of the burden of searching for other causes of the problem, a kind of pursuit that is often paralyzing for the organization.

However, if an organization so overuses ‘attitude’ as an explanation for its problems that it makes a regular habit of engaging in such personalization, it will run into trouble. References to ‘attitude’ then cut short important discussions and thus prevent learning processes from taking place.

This is not to say that people do not or should not have ‘attitudes’. Of course one’s insights and patterns of thinking may well determine one’s decisions and actions. The people who should remove the concept from their vocabulary, however, are managers and consultants. Praising their own attitudes is merely embarrassing but demanding that others adopt a certain attitude is simply inappropriate, quite apart from the fact that the prevalence of the notion of ‘attitude’ is dumbing down organizations.

René Girard, The Scapegoat, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.


Prof. Stefan Kühl

links in his observations the latest results from research with the current challenges of the corporate world.

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