Attitude Reflects Leadership

TAGS: workplace culture, leadership, Joe Schillero, attitude

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Anyone who has been a part of or watched a successful team of any kind knows that the culture of a team and the team’s attitude are crucial to success (especially longterm). Building a successful team/staff culture isn’t easy, and it takes a strong leader to do it. When your team members come from a diverse set of backgrounds, and when their reasons for being part of the team vary (particularly if they were there before you arrived), this presents unique challenges for building success. For the purpose of this article, I’ll speak specifically in the context of supervising staff, but many of the concepts apply whether you’re supervising staff, coaching teams, or even leading training crews.

Anyone who has overseen a staff (especially a large one) has probably run into situations where you’ve faced the frustration of attitudes not being what you want them to be. When you realize the types of attitudes that make up a successful team culture, seeing the opposite in your staff can be incredibly discouraging. Even when you have some great staff who model the right attitude, the staff rowing in the opposite direction often stick out the most.


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There are a lot of factors that affect staff attitudes, and this article isn’t designed to be the complete guide to building a staff culture. What I do want to focus on, however, is how our attitudes as leaders play an incredibly important role in the attitudes of our staff.

The issues that affect you as a leader will vary depending on what setting you work in, but ultimately, in every organization, leaders (particularly those in a mid-/upper-level positions, where you have multiple levels of leadership above you as well as a large team below you) deal with some level of frustration from both sides. For leaders in a university or large corporate/business setting, the strategies and procedures set forth by upper management are often disconnected (or they at least feel that way) from what you feel you need to lead your team to success. Leaders at the middle level are tasked with the challenging mission of trying to communicate and execute the greater organizational plan while also getting feedback from and supporting their staff team, as well as accomplishing goals at multiple levels.

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This role is challenging because to be successful, you have to be able to navigate multiple levels of communication with different types of staff. You must also be able to balance the needs of your staff with the greater needs of the organization (and weigh what you think needs done vs. what is being done). Being in a leadership role located between the top end and the bottom end of the organization can be extremely tough (and often frustrating) because you’re trying to connect and communicate between two very different staff levels, as well as help both sides to see some level of perspective of the other. From a coaching perspective, you could look at the ownership/general manager/athletic director perspective as the top end, and players as the bottom end.

Anyone at this level of leadership has understood what it’s like to be frustrated with things out of your control, especially when they’re things that your organization is doing that you don’t agree with (I’m speaking to decisions and strategy, not anything moral or ethical). Something we face as leaders is determining how we want our attitudes about those things to be communicated to our teams. Some leaders can be so tight to the “company line” that lower-level staff feel like they aren’t getting any empathy, understanding, or advocacy. On the flip side, some leaders can be so transparent with their frustrations that it’s abundantly clear to lower-level staff that their boss “thinks all of this stuff being sent down is bullsh*t,” and they act accordingly.

Like most things in life, I think the art of being an effective leader is finding the sweet spot in the middle of these two. If you lead in a way that is cold and doesn’t make your staff feel advocated or cared for, your staff culture and attitudes will suffer. You’ll lack relationships, and your staff won’t have any buy-in to what you want to do. If you want to demand more of your staff, you should start by making it abundantly clear that their well-being and personal success are important to you personally. When you do that, this lays a foundation that the tough conversations can then be built upon. On the other hand, if you let the frustrations and red tape of your organization spill into your daily attitude, and if you find yourself venting and complaining to staff, that attitude will trickle down, and before you know it, you have a team full of negative, frustrated people who don’t buy in, either.

At various times in all of our careers, we can stray too far to one side or the other. I’ve had times where in my effort to be professional, I was too black and white in my approach. At other times, in my effort to be transparent with and compassionate to my staff, I allowed my attitude to become too negative. Finding the right balance is something that takes time and experience, and it’s a lifelong development process for all of us. In recent years, I’ve recognized the value of using open-ended questions, structured feedback sessions, and informal relationship building in helping staff to feel heard, valued, and advocated for. My health coaching training in motivational interviewing helped with finding non-leading ways to give feedback and to make sure that people understand that I recognize their frustrations and concerns. Communicating that staff feedback to the top end of your organization is incredibly important for the organization as a whole to be successful.

I’ve also recognized the value of how the words I say (formally and informally) to my staff, as well as the tone/attitude I say them with play a direct role in my staff’s attitudes as well. A little bit of “harmless venting” can quickly turn into a negative staff culture that is extremely contagious. One thing I’ve learned is that staff are watching and listening more often and more closely than you might think, and your attitude WILL trickle down through your staff. I’ve walked into organizations where staff have become so de-sensitized to the little negative comments and venting that everyone I talk to has 10 negative things to say before he or she mentions anything remotely positive (and that’s happening to me, an outsider whom they don’t even know).

I say all this as hopefully some food for thought for leaders in these positions. We all have times we’re frustrated with the attitudes and culture of our staff, and we often immediately point to factors outside of our control. But how often do we examine our own attitudes and the balance between professionalism and transparency? Between positivity and realism?

There are a lot of components to building a staff culture that spans far beyond this one topic, and I may write about more of them in the future. When we start this process of examining the culture and attitudes of our team, however, looking at ourselves can be the most important place to start. This topic always makes me think of the scene from Remember the Titans where Gerry Bertier is frustrated with Julius Campbell. When he’s laying into him about his attitude, Julius replies with “attitude reflects leadership, Captain.”

Our organizations and staff do plenty of things that can negatively affect our team’s culture, but when we take time to look in the mirror as leaders first, it sets a tone that can lead to sustainable and effective culture change for the future. It doesn’t fix everything, but it’s a great place to start.

Header image credit: inamar82 © 123rf.com

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