As a young teacher, I remember reading a poster on the wall of my school (yes, people read those!) that said something like this:
Attitude is the mind’s paintbrush.
I don’t remember what else there was to that poster, but the idea that attitude colors everything we say and do stuck with me over the years. It’s apparent that attitude impacts learning, too:
“A new study explains why girls do better at school, even when their scores on standardized tests remain low. Researchers from University of Georgia and Columbia University say the variation in school grades between boys and girls may be because girls have a better attitude toward learning than boys.
One of the study’s lead authors, Christopher Cornwell, said, ‘The skill that matters the most in regards to how teachers graded their students is what we refer to as “approaches toward learning.” You can think of “approaches to learning” as a rough measure of what a child’s attitude toward school is: It includes six items that rate the child’s attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, learning independence, flexibility and organization. (Source: via Slashdot)
Still, in my early years before I became an administrator, I thought that other factors weighed more than attitude. This opinion was still in place when I began my work in a large urban school district, where the assistant superintendent who brought me on the team shared, “I’d rather have a positive attitude on the team than an expert with a lousy attitude.” At the time, I balked. I cognitively dug in my heels, and said, “No way. I’d rather have the prima donna.”
Several experiences changed my mind, though, of which I offer two for your consideration.
Experience #1 – Working with a Prima Donna
My father always counseled me to do as the Great Voltaire and learn from other people’s experience. Sure enough, a colleague in a leadership position shared how he had this awesome team member who could do everything and do it at a high level of proficiency. However, everyone hated this person. The reason why was her poor attitude towards work. Nothing was ever done well enough from her perspective and her biting remarks, backbiting tended to not sit well with folks. My colleague found himself in the rare position of having to defend his decisions to leadership because the prima donna would spread rumors that would then have to be proved wrong. This consumed a tremendous amount of time…so much time that the value of the prima donna, or the expert, was nullified by her poor attitude and behaviors.
As my friend shared these stories with me, I realized that he probably would have been better off with someone with a fantastic attitude but B level skills. While this seems like you’re settling for someone less qualified (you are initially), it means that you can actually get more done. And, I’ve yet to meet anyone with a great attitude that wasn’t willing to learn more. Still, as John Maxwell points out, attitude doesn’t replace competence. But given today’s job market, it’s not that difficult to find someone who has a high level of competence and exhibits a great attitude.
If you have a great attitude but you are incompetent, you’re never going to get where you want to go.
Experience #2 – Sarcastic Sal
On occasion, I’ve indulged my sarcastic side. It’s a sign of a mind striving to be witty but falling short. Sarcasm, unfortunately, is often carried too far. A sarcastic attitude damages one’s interactions with others. Put a sarcastic person in a sensitive situation, and you end up with problems and issues that you couldn’t have imagined. I had the opportunity to serve with one person whose sarcasm would make curl your toes. I found the best way to respond to sarcasm was to laugh at it, to let the other person know, “Yes, I understand why you feel that way” and then suggest a different response.
Unfortunately, folks like Sarcastic Sal are often too far gone. It’s their life mission to change the world along with Patti Perfects, and they believe they can do it one stinging sarcastic remark after another. I often wish the Sals and Pattis of the world would change their attitudes…their brilliance and resourcefulness, their insight and ability to anticipate problems would be a tremendous asset to any organization.
Attitude is the difference maker, as Maxwell points out:
I cannot always choose what happens to me, but I can always choose what happens in me. Some things in life are beyond my control. Some things are within it. My attitude about the areas beyond my control can be the difference maker. My attitude about the areas that I do control will be the difference maker. In other words, the greatest difference my “difference maker” can make is within me, not others. When you are trying to change someone, just try and change yourself. (Source: John Maxwell, Success.com)