Ending the Attitude Death Spiral

I am sure you have seen this; you walk into a place of business and encounter an employee with a bad attitude or just indifference.  What causes this, and, more importantly, what can be done about it?

The Arbinger Institute tells us in their books about something called the Collusion Model.  I like to call it the Attitude Death Spiral.  What this model describes is a simple human tendency to mirror what we see and to justify our behavior by blaming others.

How the model works goes something like this: A customer arrives with a negative attitude for whatever reason; an employee sees this and labels the customer as a bad person.  This label then gives the employee the justification to react with a similar bad attitude.  This then allows the customer to label the employee and justify more bad behavior.  The process continues in a spiral or cycle that goes on and on leaving both parties feeling bad, angry, frustrated, etc. What’s worse is that over time, this cycle can create an overall attitude among employees that all customers are just bad people.  This creates that indifference we’ve all experienced as customers even though we haven’t even done anything.


Here’s the kicker though, we all do this, most of the time without even knowing it.  We do it at work, at home, and at play.  We see behavior or attitude and justify our reactions by blaming others for it.  This is a death spiral as you can see.  It leads to nothing very good, and good is what we desperately need more of these days.

So what is the solution, what is the way out?  Well, what needs to change is people’s frame of mind. Certainly in the case of customer service, there needs to be a change in thinking.  This change, not training, must be the first step. You see, too many businesses skip this and move right to task training; they set expectations, design procedures and scripts, teach employees how to do it all and then send them out to put on the show.  Unfortunately, this results in fake experiences and inconsistent results over the long term.  To create a long term difference requires a change in thinking to stop the instinctive tendency to fall into the Attitude Death Spiral.

Step one:  Businesses need to come to terms with the fact that money and profit are secondary results of performing their primary purpose of helping customers achieve their goals.  Once this truth becomes the driver of the business, it must become the central focus of every decision, process, procedure, and strategy.

Step two: The “helping customers” focus must be a regularly communicated.  This theme must be first on agendas, it must be part of all onboarding, marketing and sales messaging, and it must part of performance discussions.

Step three:  All employees must be trained to see customers as people with needs, wants, dreams, feelings, worries, and problems.  They must get an understanding that people are much like icebergs where what we see is only a small part of the reality that exists out of our view.

Step four:  Train employees to change their inner dialog before the instinctive death-spiral dialog kicks in.  By first seeing customers as people with complications lying beneath the surface and then thinking, “how can I be more helpful?”, employees can set their mind to helping rather than justifying bad behavior.


Step five: Managers must get out on the floor, observe employee performance, and coach the creation of a positive thinking habit that ends the Attitude Death Spiral.

Ultimately, the key to improving customer service is in changing the frame of mind of those in the business of serving…and that means all of us.  We must see others as people with needs, wants, and most of all complicated problems and challenges.  Once we see that, helpfulness becomes the way out and the way to better business and relationships.

For more on this, I suggesst reading any or all of the Arbinger Institute books:

  • Leadership and Self Deception
  • The Anatomy of Peace
  • The Outward Mindset

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