Bad Employee Attitude. Really?

November 20, 2009

Have you ever said to one of your employees “You have a bad attitude”?  If you have, I seriously doubt you knew what the hell you were talking about.  I see advice all the time about how to handle the employee with the “bad attitude,” and almost all of it is garbage.

Think back to the last time you shared this fantastic news with one of your employees.  What probably happened was the employee did something unexpected, unappreciated, or otherwise unacceptable to you.  That rubbed you the wrong way.  What people usually mean when they say “you have a bad attitude” is “I don’t LIKE you!” After you told the employee “you have a bad attitude,” what probably followed next was something like “and YOU better fix it.”  And whether you said it or not, what you clearly meant next was “or else!”

Congratulations, you just dumped on your employee.  Did you feel better? I hope so, because you accomplished NOTHING with that employee, and you taught every other employee that observed your display of decisive leadership that you are at least inept and probably an asshole.  Whatever your employee felt, I guarantee you that your diatribe left them with absolutely no clue how to change their behavior to improve.

Stay away from attitudes!  Focus instead on the bad behavior you observed in your employee. Explain clearly how the behavior did not meet expectations and then engage the employee in dialogue to find out why they behaved that way and what it would take from both of you to change that behavior.

If you insist on talking about attitudes, I strongly suggest limiting yourself to learning how to look for the specific attitudes job satisfaction and organizational commitment in your employees because there is a LOT of research that shows those two attitudes do significantly affect employee performance.  Once you focus on a specific attitude, you can take specific actions to try to change that attitude with the expectation of changing the specific behavior you think was associated with the attitude.

You need to stop talking about “bad attitudes” and for that matter “good attitudes”.  Both of those terms managerially useless because they are void of specificity and real understanding.

Related Posts:

Communicating Concerns About Performance: Focus on Behaviors

The Importance of Understanding Personalities and Attitudes

Do You Know What Drives Work Performance? Part 2

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Comments (16)

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  1. Art Petty says:

    Bret, spot on. I teach feedback programs to professional groups and the attitude issue is consistently one of the more controversial topics (for the participants). We work hard on helping them understand that attitude is not behavior. We’ve developed a series of instruments and cases that amplify this important point.

    As developed along with my co-author partner, we teach and train on the Six Key Components for Effective Feedback Discussions:

    1. Focused on Behavior (observable actions, not attitudes!)
    2. Timely (generally closer to the incident the better)
    3. Candid…no sugar coating.
    4. Specific…fact based…avoid innuendo
    5. Brief…one sentence, one behavior rule.
    6. Guided by a business rationale.

    Incorporate all 6 of those components properly and you will have the structure for an effective feedback discussion. The behavior component is the one that many people whiff on.

    Thanks for sharing your very important thoughts on this valuable topic! -Art

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Really appreciate this feedback, Art! I knew we would be on the same page on this. All six of your points are excellent. this is how I like people to talk to me, so I try to practice the same. Thanks! Bret

  2. Ed Batista says:

    Really like the addition of video to your posts, Bret, and the outdoor setting makes it particularly vivid and personal. One criticism: at least on my screen the aspect ratio is compressed horizontally–if that’s an issue for other viewers, it would be great if you could sort it out. But overall a big plus–great stuff.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for the feedback, Ed! I have to be honest, I don’t even know what an aspect ratio is!!! I know enough to be dangerous. I will tell you that I just switched to buring my movied in HD. Youtube has awful quality unless you post in HD, and while Vimeo has good quality in HC, it often gets “hung up” as it loads on my page. Frustrating. Overall I LOVE video and am glad to be moving along the learning curve.

    Thanks! Bret

  3. Ed Batista says:

    Sorry for the tech jargon, Bret–I know just enough to be dangerous as well. It just means the image is a little compressed horizontally. It could be a local problem on my end, but it’s showing up on both Firefox and Explorer, suggesting it could be a camera setting on your end. As I said, not a major issue, but if you could sort it out it’ll make your videos look more realistic.

  4. Ed Batista says:

    Just also thought that it could be a “translation” issue when you upload the video rather than a camera setting–going from one format to another could result in the horizontal compression for some reason.

  5. Ed Batista says:

    I think this video will help you solve the problem:

    The solution involves adding some short snippets of code to your videos’ tags which change the aspect ratio for viewers. I just tested it on a video of mine, and it was really easy. In the “Video Owner Options” box, click on “Edit Video,” and then scroll down to the “Tags” section. Add the code to that section and click “Save Changes”–I suspect you’ll want to use either “yt:stretch=4:3” or “yt:stretch=16:9” (without the quotes.)

    There may still be a camera setting you can change so that you don’t have to fix your new videos, but hopefully this provides an easy fix for your old ones.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Ed, I really appreciate all the help!!! I am going to watch the video and continue to experiment given your tips. I can’t make a camera adjustment at this point because my camera is the Flip Mino HD and it does not have any settings! But I have played around with the formats for how I burn my movies (HC or two types of HD) and I have played with where I post them (Vimeo or Youtube). I am LOVING learning how to do this and sincerely appreciate your interest and help. Thanks!! Bret

  6. Wow, Bret! Fabulous post. Agree with it. Love it. Steve

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks, Steve! Bret

  7. Not sure I agree. My husband and I opened our business with about $500k that took years to save and put into thousands of dollars every year. I go through front staff people like crazy. I give them loads of positive feedback when they do something well and I always let them know that I prefer not to micro-manage them becuase I’ve got to make sure I do what I do best and that is sell. Eventually, they slack, they abuse the computer usage for personal use and leave early but sign out for their regular shift. So I’m supposed to break my back building my dream while I give someone a “take advantage” of the boss ride? No. A bad attitiude is simply a bad attitude.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Zulma! I DO hear what you are saying. I hear stories like this all the time. But think about this – WHY do you go through front staff people like crazy? WHY do they eventually slack? WHY can’t you hire the right people to do the job you need them to do with distinction? I believe there is a reason why, and when you find that reason you will have found your leverage. There is no leverage – zero, zilch, none – in the bad attitude route.

    Thanks for visiting my site and sharing!!! Bret

  8. Robin says:

    I havebeen in business since 1998and the problem is the postions I have to hire for are minimum wage and the quality of workers I get for minimum wage. I can’t pay anymore, and I get good people, train them they do a good job, then they move on for higher paying positions. My job force is like a stepping stone to meet their finacial needs until something better comes along. The best way I have found to manage retention is to be lieient and thats not always good. Any suggestions?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Robin. If you can still get good people then you are doing something right. If you get a reputation for being a bad place to work or a bad person to work for, then the flow of good people willing to work with you will decrease. Are you sure the retention problem you have is about pay? Get data, check your assumptions. Are you sure you can’t pay anymore? Sometimes it can be cost effective to pay more for someone very good that will stay with you. Thanks for the comment! Bret

  9. Jason says:

    Hey Bret,
    I notice this is a rather old article but after doing some internet searching I found your site and was hoping you might have some more words of wisdom.

    First, I totally agree with you but no matter what I try with one of my employees it seems he will not react in what me and other supervisors and managers consider to be a positive manner.

    I asked him (privately) why it took him so long to finish a task and expressed my desire to help him overcome any problems he may have encountered. I told him he did a great job overall but with further training he could accomplish the task in a timelier fashion. I was completely calm. Had no major problem with his performance.

    His response was loud and agitated. He began talking over my sentences. Accusing me of giving him a hard time. I stayed calm and tried to understand why he was taking the conversation in this direction. He began jumping to unrelated topics about people in other departments. Began accusing other workers of unrelated “problems”. I gently reminded him that I was not there to discuss those topics or those departments/workers but that we could absolutely discuss them later with the appropriate supervisor/manager involved.

    He again reacted in a way I would describe as violent. He accused me of having a problem with him and said he wanted to talk to my boss about this. I said that I didn’t think we would need to for what I was there to discuss with him but if he really wanted to then we could of course go find my boss right now and at least set up a meeting with him. He exclaimed, “I am not afraid to talk to him!” I simply said, “OK, no one is saying you are, that is absolutely fine.” Not to my surprise, the meeting went terribly for him.

    I could go on and on. Very sorry for such a long message. I hope I have given you some understanding of what this person seems like. I feel like I have run out of options/tactics/understanding and after some of the things he has said and done I am beginning to think he may be a bit genuinely emotionally unstable.

    Any pointers/advice you can offer?

    Again, my apologies for such a long post on such an old article.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Jason. It sounds like you gave a good faith effort for dealing with your employee in a manner reflecting professional dignity. You are responsible for your choices, not his response. Your employee is responsible for the response. It might be a personality issue with the employee, like narcissism, and if that is the case you should expect this patterned response to continue. At some point, after you have truly done all you can to try to help, you will have to make a tough choice. At that point, you can look in the mirror and know that you were fair. Thanks for sharing! Bret