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Posted by Philip on 24 September 2013, 12:00 pm in , , , ,

What if attitudes don't really matter?

An orange

Attitude is everything, they say. What if I said, I don't think so?

Consider that, as long as it remains inside my head, my attitude means nothing. It's only when I speak it, or act on it, that it begins to matter.

Let's say I hate orange. Until I start insulting people for wearing orange, destroying orange things that aren't mine or, if I'm influential enough, I stop people wearing orange or making orange things, no one knows I hate orange.

Even if I love orange, no one knows until I start favouring those wearing orange, smashing others' stuff that isn't orange and insisting everything has to be orange.

A lot of time and energy goes into changing attitudes (believe me, I've done it for a living). But what happens when we look beyond the attitude to its outward manifestation — written or spoken language, actions and behaviours? What if we recognise that it's what we say and do that matters, not what we actually think?

A new question then arises: What governs the connection between attitudes, words and behaviours? Based on books I've read and a workshop I did recently*, I suggest three things impact on them:

  • Information
  • Experience
  • Values

For the sake of simplicity, let's keep with the orange example.


If I am given some information about orange, like it's scientifically proven to make people like me more, I may change my attitude about it. Or I may still dislike it, but think twice about banning orange t-shirts. This example depends on my ego, which we'll touch on more soon.


If I go to an orange-themed party and have a wicked time, I may give orange the benefit of the doubt, whether or not I change my mind about it. If the party was lame though, I'll probably blame orange over my poor social skills.


By far the most impacting influence on whether I speak or act on my attitude about orange are my values. Values are like meta-attitudes that pervade all aspects of my worldview. If an attitude is a roof, my values are the sky.

If my values are negative and anti-social — individualistic, ego-centric, self-gratifying etc — I'll more likely respond to my anti-orange attitude in ways that serve me rather than the common good. I'll slag off your orange t-shirt and ban anything orange, just because it suits me.

If, however, my values are humanitarian — generous, collective, harm-preventing etc — I'll think twice about commenting on your orange t-shirt. Sure, I may not like it but it's not hurting me, but putting you down may hurt you. Perhaps I'll ask you if you've ever considered wearing green. I'll let orange have its place and avoid looking at it unless I absolutely have to.

Real life examples

A couple of real-life examples may help to test the validity of this consideration — which, by the way, I am just considering, by writing about it. I may end up disagreeing with myself

Gay marriage legalisation

Some would argue that the legalisation of gay marriage has been helped by a change in attitude about sexual orientation. It may have, but I think two values made more of an impact than attitude. The first value was "equality", the lack of which became more and more obvious as the issue was pushed politically. The second value was that of "legalised monogamy". Together, equality and a right to legal monogamy were the values that helped gay marriage become law, not a change of attitude towards people's sexuality.

Workers with disabilities losing their jobs because of KFC's restructuring policy

It's easy — and perhaps slightly simplistic — to argue that KFC have suddenly developed a bad attitude towards disability. Were that so, they would have never employed disabled people. The driver behind this policy change is values, not attitude. The KFC policy for all staff to be capable of all duties is based on a value, after which they've named the policy — "all star level" staffing. KFC are acting on a value that all employees need to be equally capable of all tasks. This will impact on more than just disabled employees.

So what?

The danger of turning to attitude as the cause of unfair behaviour misses the deeper values-based motivation behind what we say and do. It also allows people to legitimately dismiss a conversation about change, based on a possibly very true defense that you are incorrect about their attitude about something.

Next time you think you've uncovered a bad attitude that needs changing, you may want to consider instead a deeper discussion — one about values and how they influence what is said and done.


* The book that influenced my thinking is Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. The workshop was run by Altris Ltd.



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