A Leader's Role in Issues of Attitude

at·ti·tude – a settled way of thinking or feeling about something.

I talked with leaders recently about how to deal with attitude issues. It concerned their frustrations with early-career professionals (millennials), but I think the themes of our discussion are equally applicable to other attitudinal issues and demographic groups. People are people after all.

This issue took the form of “They seem to expect too much too fast,” a familiar refrain when talking about younger workers. But it seems to have at least as much to do with age and life-stage differences as it does with generational differences in experience and expectations. We were all young once, and most of us would admit an acquaintance with the felt urgency of ambition and chafing at the need to “bide our time.”

Beyond the demographics, the issue might be framed as a breakdown in communications. One person (the millennial) expresses expectations that another person (a gen X manager) feels are unrealistic and naive, perhaps also presumptuous. It may offend a work ethic, what it means to earn a promotion. This kind of disconnect can create immediate feelings of distance and alienation for both.

It would seem, then, that their “settled” ways of understanding (attitudes) must be “unsettled” and examined in order to create sufficient malleability to close the gap in understanding. And the way we accomplish this is through the use of communicative practices that lay at the heart of great leadership and relationships.  

The power of a reflective pause

Two modes of communicating are relevant when addressing such disconnects. The first is communication for influence, which aims to motivate, mobilize, and align action toward some end (a mission, goals, and objectives). The second is communication for understanding, which is motivated by an interest to know one another, to create bonds of mutuality, empathy, and trust.[1] They are distinct and complementary.

When disconnects occur in the first mode on matters like how career advancement works in our company (pace, trajectory, milestones), it helps to shift attention to the second. Why? Because communication, being the single most important kind of action in leadership, is always relational. And leaders, given the nature of their role, seniority, and experience, arguably bear a larger duty to initiate these practices.

Even before initiating communication for understanding, however, they must notice the need for it by observing a gap in understanding and expectations. And as a collective, management can further promote the practice of gap-closing communication by providing early-career professionals training on how to recognize such gaps and how to invite discussion of them with their supervisor.  

Getting to mutual understanding

One of the most important lessons that millennials can learn is how to manage up. Why? Because – as McKinsey research has shown – most managers don’t find the time to do much coaching, mentoring, and development of their people. They’re usually more focused on the urgent to-do's of the day. So, if you’re among the fortunate few whose managers make the time and do it well, great. But we can't count on it.

As a practical matter, therefore, I believe it’s best to assume that if we want a relationship with our boss, and if we want her support, we must help make that happen. We must be proactive agents of getting what we want and need from management today more than ever. There’s no value in wishing it were different or simpler, or that we’ll get what we want simply by wanting it badly enough.  

What I encourage is learning how to be an active agent in the communication process. There is almost always an opportunity for win-win outcomes if you have the attitude, insights, and skills that constitute “adaptive development.” What makes this approach powerful is that it bolsters our internal locus of control and makes us feel more in charge. And most managers will appreciate our initiative and readiness.

So, what is the leader’s role in attitude issues? 1) Leader’s cultivate skill in using the two communication practices. 2) They notice attitude issues as gaps that require examination. 3) They set a tone of patience and a goal to understand one another’s experience, expectations, and attitudes. 4) Finally, they trust the process and their good-faith efforts to sort things out and arrive at a new and shared “settled” way of thinking and feeling about the matter at hand.

[1] Communication of the first kind is “strategic action.” It’s commonly used as a means of discharging our formal roles and duties that require getting work done through others. The second kind of communication is “communicative action.” It’s what builds the implicit understandings and good will that underlie less formal, collaborative styles of work. Both types of communication are important. They overlap and complement one another, just as governance-based needs for hierarchy and practical needs for a networked structure co-exist.