Does attitude determine behaviour, or does behaviour determine attitude - or both?

General George Patton was asked, in 1944 how he ‘wins hearts and minds.’ His answer is legendary and witty, but also incredibly profound. Patton said: ‘Grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.’ Now sure this may sound a little crude and crass but what he is saying is that behaviour will determine attitude, and that is a wise and insightful viewpoint.

We were asked by the world’s largest manufacturer of architectural ironmongery to create a customer-centric culture. Previously they’d tried all the ‘attitudinal changing,’ trite methods of pictures of happy customers, and statements like ‘customers pay our wages,’ and ‘awe-inspiring’ posters of tired-inspired people who had just climbed a mountain for the first time, covered in snow and glory. So no problem with square inches of inspiration on walls but ‘winning the hearts and minds,’ especially of the senior team, was a far more difficult task.

The senior team knew all the arguments: happy customers mean repeat business, happy customers act as advocates by telling other people how good your company is and building a relationship means that doing business is less transactional and price-sensitive; indeed they could make those convincing arguments to others. But the difference was, they couldn’t actually ‘feel’ it because they had no direct experience.

Attitudes have three main components: cognitive, (which is about our beliefs) affective, (which is about our feelings) and behavioural (how we act towards the attitude object). Getting attitude to change behaviour is really difficult because we intellectualise, post-rationalise, make excuses - anything rather than accept the logic. However by effecting changes in behaviour we often find that attitude follows suit. So why is that? We call it ‘cognitive dissonance,’ which argues that people prefer their beliefs and feelings to be consistent with each other and with their behaviour so when inconsistencies occur people become uncomfortable and have to adapt; but how do they adapt? Think about someone whose cognition is ‘I smoke’, who is bombarded with messages ‘smoking kills.’ The obvious corollary to this is that they give up smoking; but they don’t do they? They either discount the evidence or adopt the irrational belief that smoking won’t harm them personally or promise themselves that they will give up on Monday - or the end of the month, or after the summer holidays; anything rather than give up.

So back to our architectural ironmongery organisation; what did we do? Well what we did was initiate a policy, (not a policy, oh yeah a ‘policy.’) Every single senior manager, including all board members, had to personally (personally mind) handle four customer complaints a month, including personal follow-up with the customer. Thus the CEO had to show up at a DIY store in Glasgow and get a ‘severe telling off,’ (as they say in Glasgow) from the store owner; that is truly the sharp end of ‘customer experience.’ And do you know, all of a sudden, customer service really did become important to the organisation and the senior team suddenly became its strongest advocates. Why? Because, like Patton said (perhaps a little more coarsely), having had a direct experience, their behaviour determined their attitude.