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Management Challenge: When an employee needs an attitude adjustment

by Bruce TulganAugust 2016

   If you are like most managers, you avoid dealing with employee attitude problems, despite the fact that you know that employee attitudes matter a lot. Attitude affects productivity, quality, and morale. It also has a huge impact on collegiality, cooperation, and cohesion. It can be the difference between employees embracing or rejecting development opportunities. Attitide can make the difference between retention versus turnover. Good attitudes drive positive results. Bad attitudes put a drag on results.

   So why do most managers avoid dealing with bad attitudes? Until, that is, they can no longer be avoided? By then it is too late, and the conversation is doomed to become a difficult confrontation.

   “Attitude” is hard to talk about for three basic reasons:

     1. It seems so personal, like maybe, “none of your business.”

     2. It seems intrinsic to the person, so probably impossible to change. That’s why people say things like, “That’s just who he is.”

     3. It seems intangible, so it is hard to describe in clear terms. You might think, “She is doing her job, after all. Who is to say she has to do it with a smile on her face all the time?”

   That’s why most managers mostly avoid giving employees negative feedback about attitude unless the behavior is truly egregious. Unless bad behavior is so incessant that even you can’t take it anymore, you probably let most of the behavior slide. Sometimes you might make an offhand comment, a hint, the occasional suggestion. And you don’t push too hard because those with “bad attitudes” are also the most likely to take offense. Telling an employee he has a “bad attitude” is a good way to make a bad attitude even worse. When you do let it slide, those with “good attitudes” typically work around it just fine. This sort of thinking is how bad attitudes become accepted and absorbed into the fabric of the workplace, putting a drag on performance while hiding in plain sight.

   You (or a colleague) might offer a periodic reproach to those with “bad attitudes,” usually delivered lightly and in passing, which means the behavior is barely pushed below the surface. When it recurs, it might escape your notice. Or it might just slide by again, or it might be reproached again, maybe lightly and in passing, or greeted by coworkers with the routine murmurs of disapproval. Unless it pops up just one too many times, or at the wrong time, or with the wrong person, or it comes out just a little too much or a little too loud. Then perhaps there is an outburst or an exchange of words or worse.

   Whenever you get the guts to address the matter—-even if it seems like a time when cooler heads might prevail—- it can be very hard to find the right words. The “attitude” in question may seem intangible, hard to measure in objective terms, and therefore descriptions of that behavior may seem subjective: “You seem unfriendly,” or negative, unhappy, angry, frustrated, or “fill in the blank” can all receive the retort, “No. I am NOT.” That’s because they are all statements about the individual’s inner state. And who is better qualified to comment on that person’s inner state than that person? Certainly not you, that person’s manager, unless you are a licensed psychological therapist.

   Meanwhile, trying to describe an employee’s attitude—-especially when that person is not at his/her best—- is likely to provoke an emotional response from the employee. The employee may well feel attacked. The criticism may come as a shock, as if without warning, especially when the employee has been behaving this way for some time. The employee may well say (or think), “This is a personal attack. It’s just who I am. Are you asking me to change my personality?”

   This might –in turn—provoke an emotional response from you, the manager. You might think (or say): “I’ve been putting up with this nonsense for way too long. I’ve had just about enough. Maybe who you are is not the right person for this job!” That’s how a conversation quickly hits a downward spiral.

   That’s why most managers tend second guess themselves on issues like this, thinking: “Maybe this issue is too personal. Is it even something that this person can change?” No wonder you avoid dealing with employee attitude problems.

   I use the term “attitude” to zero in on that very special category of employee performance problem that matters so much but seems so hard for so many managers to actually get their arms around. As long as you think of attitude as a personal, internal matter, it is going to remain intangible and you will remain out of your depth. Plus, whatever your employees might be “feeling inside” is indeed none of your business. Stop focusing on the inside/personal stuff. Focus on the outside.

   Feelings are on the inside. Observable behavior is on the outside. That observable behavior can be seen, heard, and felt. When we talk about attitude, it’s not about who the person is, it’s about how person behaves. No matter how intrinsic the source may be, it is only the external behavior that can be and must be managed.

   If you focus on that observable external behavior, all of a sudden it becomes really simple. On the outside, attitude is all about communication practices: Words, format, tone, and gestures.

   Just like any other aspect of performance, the only way to lead/manage/supervise employee attitude is with strong highly engaged management. That means steady, consistent high quality communication – your only real leadership tool—high structure, high substance. It’s just a matter of applying the fundamentals to this difficult, complex, and all too common challenge. You need to define it and spell it out as a set of expectations, and then monitor, measure, and document it—-require it, recognize and reward it—- like any other aspect of performance.

   Do you want to be great at dealing with employee attitude problems? Do you want to find it downright easy to tell employees when and how they need to change their attitudes at work? Here’s what you need to do:

     • Don’t let attitude be a personal issue. Instead, make it 100% business. Make great attitude an explicit and regularly discussed performance requirement for everyone. Make it all about the work.

     • Never try to change an employee’s internal state, only speak to the external behaviors. It’s not about what the employee is feeling deep inside—the source of the attitude issues—but rather what the employee is expressing on the outside. External behavior is something an employee can learn to perform and it is something you can require.

     • Refuse to allow attitude –great, good, or bad—- to remain vague in any way. Make it 100% clear. Define the behaviors of great attitude: words, tone, and gestures. Spell it out. Break it down. Monitor, measure, and document it every step of the way. Talk about it. Hold people accountable. Reward the “doers.” Remove the “won’t-ers.”

     • When an employee starts seeming like someone with a bad attitude, you need to start talking about that in your regular one-on-one dialogue with that person. Zero in on the negative behaviors, one at a time:

     1. Describe the specific words, format, tone and gestures.
     2. Connect the behavior with tangible work outcomes.
     3. Make reference to the performance requirement or best practice from which the negative behavior deviates.
     4. Define the replacement behavior that you will use as a specific performance expectation against which to measure the individual’s improvement.
     5. Continue to follow up in one-on-ones. Reward success. Do not accept failure.

   Some attitude problems will resist solutions even when you deal with them meticulously, aggressively and persistently. For the vast majority of employees, however, if you have the guts and discipline to coach them meticulously, aggressively and persistently, they will either leave on their own or else they will get better.

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