Article: How do we change attitude of the workforce?

Employee Engagement

How do we change attitude of the workforce?

Many managers want to change the attitude of their workforce, but get frustrated that their attempts to change attitude often ends up in failure
How do we change attitude of the workforce?

Many HR managers have a deceptively simple wish: To change the attitude of their workforce. “Make my employees more motivated” or “Make them feel more accountable” etc. However, the same HR managers are frustrated that their attempts to change attitude so often ends up in failure –old habits really die hard! Well, it may be because we are solving the wrong problem.

Attitude (pre-disposition to behave in a particular way, which then leads to behaviour) is just a symptom, governed by what we have known (‘cognition’) and felt (‘affection’) over a period of time. Our past experiences result in mental paradigms or set mindsets that then affect our attitude and therefore how we behave. For example, an employee who may have bitter memories of being innovative (e.g. being ridiculed by bosses) will then start showing conformist behaviour. Similarly, a person with low self-esteem (‘mindset’) will obviously find it difficult to ‘behave’ with confidence.

A European food major asked us to make their sales force more profit oriented, as against their current focus on units sold. We asked them whether they rewarded the sales force on profits. And their nonchalant answer was: “but sales force across the world is rewarded on volumes!” If a salesman’s experience (cognition) is that driving volumes, even if unprofitably, is rewarded, obviously he would focus only on volume. We need to change his experiences, which hopefully will change his mindset and thereby his behaviour.

Similarly, another large MNC asked us to make their middle management ‘problem solvers’, who could solve their own issues, instead of escalating all issues to their managers. However, when we dig deeper, we realised that in the past solutions by a middle-level manager were generally met with a lukewarm response and when things went wrong, they were severely reprimanded. Hence the ‘pre-disposition’ (attitude) to delegate any thinking and problem solving upwards to their managers.

So how do we change such pre-dispositions or attitude? First, the bad news: There is no evidence that class-room trainings alone can lead to any perceptible change. Half-day pep talks may create a momentary high, but such positive psychology often boils down to mass hypnotism which, by definition, is ephemeral. It would be wishful thinking that someone who is perpetually short-fused can go to a two-hour anger management workshop and become very calm and composed for the rest of his life.

Pep talks only create a transient high. Long-term attitude change requires paradigm shifts, an aha moment, where we start thinking differently. That comes from a new experience (e.g. some very heavy personal price paid for getting angry or rewards gained with new behaviour), new insights (e.g. we harm ourselves much more than others, when we are angry) and lastly, some helpful tools to practice the new attitude (e.g. alternative and positive ways to release pent up frustration). But see, just teaching new tools (e.g., say, meditation) will not help if the person’s mindset has not first embraced the need for that tool (e.g., in this case, to remain calm and healthy)!

Brain Based Learning, the cross-road of management and neuroscience, has identified Limbic Brain as the seat of emotions. Behaviour can be changed, but requires a three-step process:

  1. Deep Motivation: To change (not just externally but also subconsciously)
  2. Long-term Practice: For six to nine months (consciously trying to cultivate a new habit)
  3. Constant Feedback: By a mentor/buddy (who gently reminds when the individual is reverting to old ways and claps when he is following the ‘right’ way, and with whom there is no ego wall).


Convincing an individual that change is indeed in his own interest is often the most difficult. For that we need to create stories and beliefs that bring a paradigm shift, a change in the mindset itself. We need to change our mindset, otherwise our behaviour will obviously appear justified to our minds. And how do we change, if our ‘rational’ mind has sub-consciously justified our actions?

The collective stories and beliefs of an organisation is its culture, so to change employees’ behaviour, we need to change culture. But first assess what culture we want to build – there is no one size that fits all.

Once the ‘desired culture’ is clearly articulated, we could use a standard change management process, starting with creating a sense of urgency, a ‘war-cry’. Other steps include enrolling early adopters, and communicating, creating early wins, setting up rigorous monitoring processes etc.

Importantly, instead of ‘Behaviour Change’, think ‘Mindset Change’:

  1. Understand what behaviour needs to change
  2. Introspect what mindset or beliefs may be influencing employees to behave in this way
  3. Ask what it would take to change this belief
  4. Create a paradigm shift experience/insight. This is tricky and may require expert guidance. This could be a combination of leaders ‘walking-the-talk’, customised workshops and other HR interventions.
  5. Celebrate early successes (small acts in new behaviour) and take a public stand.
  6. Closely monitor new behaviour over 6-9 months.


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Topics: Employee Engagement, Culture

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