By Frank J. Rich
During a recent (rare) holiday with my sister, we launched into a discussion of her work environment. It’s no small wonder, given my irrepressible interest in the business of business. As she detailed the challenges of her operations (as an airline passenger agent) I could hear in them many of the principles of organizational development—leadership, management, salesmanship, decision making, problem solving, attitude building, etc.—that inform right practices. Her terms were different from those common to us who work in the Organization Development field, but as clear and right meaning as any we use.
In the discussion, she got to the point of asking aloud why people do what they do, even though they know better. It is always the right question, and here too, she had the right answer. “They seem to prepare themselves for failure, for poor performance, even though they say the opposite is their goal.” Brilliant! From deep within her real life experience at work, she could feel both the result and the desire for the answer losing their way in so many around her. And in the fullness of that visceral expression she would encourage her fledglings, “You’ve got to bring more than your lunch to work.” Prophetic!
“Fear and Trembling”
In this seminal work by Soren Kierkegaard, philosopher and existentialist (a philosophical movement that denies that the universe has any intrinsic meaning or purpose and requires individuals to take responsibility for their own actions and shape their own destinies), three stages of personal development in commitment are formulated. It is, perhaps, an early attempt at getting to the roots of attitude, the very thing my sister encouraged in offering the advice above.
As Kierkegaard explains it, there are three stages of commitment—the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. In simple terms, each forms a level of commitment that dictates the energy and extent to which we perform against expectations. In Kierkegaard’s view, we are “least resistance” oriented. We begin our journey with no “real” or “inured” commitments—simply, we do what feels good. We conform to peer pressure and societal norms around us—the line of least resistance. Few in this position ever consider that they have made a choice as a matter of commitment.
The second stage of commitment begins the process of forming the will in our behavior. Choice, then, is the rudder of our lives. In this stage, we embrace a set of values and beliefs versus alternatives that others might choose, we associate with a group for support and encouragement in living out our choices, and we find a “rational” basis for our choice—that is, we can explain it. These three attributes form the second stage of Kierkegaard’s view of commitment—the “ethical” stage. However, even though these commitments are “strong and vital,” dependence on the group for continuing approval and support tends to limit the “depth” of one’s personal commitment, according to Kierkegaard.
The third stage of commitment more fully reflects our true self, inasmuch as it is a choice that is independent of the group or its approval. Even though this third level of commitment is normally associated with a group and can be explained rationally, the individual’s “choice” remains his own, independent of the good or poor opinion others may have of him. Here, the individual chooses what he believes is right—the highest form of commitment—completely free of peer pressure, group influence, and praise. This “religious” stage is the highest form of commitment, says Kierkegaard, because it is one’s choice alone, fully disclosed and honest before God. As Kierkegaard puts it, this form of commitment confronts the issue of “honest-to-God” sincerity and is far less available to hypocrisy and deceit than either the “aesthetic” and “ethical” forms. Thus, he chose to call it the “religious” stage of commitment.
Osgood-deVries Attitude Curve
In a continuing effort to reveal the nature of attitude for its elemental goodness, Donald Osgood, management sage, joined with Paul deVries, teacher, philosopher, and thinker, to further inform the process of attitude development. The Osgood-deVries Attitude Curve is what resulted, and in this form helps to simplify the method by which individuals can attain the level of “real” commitment.
Similar in many ways to Kierkegaard’s “stages of commitment,” the Attitude Curve suggests that we begin relationships—at work, in society—in an idealistic frame. That is, we are confident in our values and beliefs system, our abilities, and the notion that only the best of things will result. This view, necessarily naïve, leads us to the second level on the curve, according to the authors of it—frustrated! Because reality is so often different from our ideal view, we become frustrated by the unfulfilled expectations of our own naïveté, eliciting fear, anxiety, and indecision.
This leads to defiance, the third level on the Attitude Curve. Realizing that we must take actions to cure these ills, we take matters into our own hands. This may be akin to Kierkegaard’s “ethical” stage in which “choice” comes into play. Unfortunately, defiance too often turns negative and destructive, especially when buried deep inside us, festering a hidden disease. We’ve all seen this behavior in the workplace with those who believe they have been betrayed by the company and begin taking actions to get even. We talk covertly about the ills of the company, its management, and decision making, growing discontent among the ranks along the way.
Those who harbor a defiant attitude usually slip into the fourth position on the Attitude Curve; they are resigned to the mediocrity and dispassion of the defeated. Such purposelessness often breeds the classical behavior of disappointed—disapproval—anger. The destructive nature of this syndrome is legend for its ill effects in the personal and professional lives of people. These people are lost in the interstitial tissue of their lives, hardly aware of their numbness or of the lemming-like quality others see in them. Interestingly, this is a fulcrum point in the development of “attitude.”
This low ebb is where we must go to confront the wrong in us; what all 12-step programs know must precede the first step to recovery—awareness. But without ownership of the problem, there is no solution, simply because we do not solve problems we do not have. It is only after we have achieved this realization, when we have uncovered the untoward effects of our resignation, defiance, and frustration that we can begin to see the opportunity in recovery. It is here that hope is “initiated,” and here that problem solving can begin. As Osgood explains it, at this point we become aware of the damage we have caused and aware of the need to form the seeds of change—inside and out.
Doing something about our condition is a responsible act, and requires the sixth element on the Attitude Curve—decisiveness. We take the rudder in hand, as in Kierkegaard’s view, accountable and responsible for what happens to us from that moment on. We are personally empowered in the process of achieving our own outcomes, and positive by a realistic self-assessment (the 1st element of self-esteem) that we can accomplish what is important to us.
As we grow stronger in decision making, we move on to the highest level of the Osgood-deVries Attitude Curve, that of fulfillment—we are committed. Absent the guilt associated with perfection, we pursue our greatest ideals with a sense of purpose and energy that produces results or personal achievement (the 2nd element of self-esteem).
Not coincidentally, commitment and accountability are inextricably tied to one another. When we are committed, we are accountable to ourselves, to meaningful others, and to God in the sense that we are “realistic, sincere, flexible, purpose driven, and open.” Most of us might not think much about the root of attitude, though very few would count another human quality as more important to the success of any endeavor. Why, then, don’t we do what we know is right and true? Why have we resigned ourselves to the ignominy of a failed existence when so much more is in us? Perhaps, as Kierkegaard, Osgood, deVries, and my sister have discovered, opportunity begins with an awareness that (at least in the workplace) it is necessary to bring more to work than your lunch.