Managing an Employee with a Bad Attitude? Just Focus on What This Person Does. An employee who complains is tolerable if you set guidelines for what is acceptable behavior.

By Shawn Doyle

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I teach leadership programs all over the country, and one of the most significant questions I get from leaders and managers in my programs is how to deal with an employee's bad attitude. I sympathize with them. Having a person with a bad attitude on the team is terrible for morale, bad for customer service, reduces productivity and slows down performance on the team.

If you are in a leadership role, here's the deal. There is a big mistake being made because when it comes to coaching for performance -- mark this down, and burn this into your leadership brain -- you can't coach attitude. Yes, you read that right. You can't coach attitude.

Related: How to Improve Your Attitude in a Matter of Minutes


Here's a few reasons.

  • Attitude is too vague, and most people don't know what it means. How do we define "positive attitude?" Everyone's definition can be different.
  • Barring a personality transplant, most people will not change their attitude because they don't want to change.
  • Attitude can't be measured so how do I know when someone gets better?
  • Most people with a bad attitudes think their attitude is just fine and wonder what all the fuss is about anyway.

But if that is the problem, how do you as a leader solve it?

The answer is not to coach attitude at all, but to coach actual behavior. Why behavior? Keep in mind that all behavior by a team member can be measured, observed and tangible. Let's say, for example, you have an employee, we'll call him Jimbo, who is rude to his fellow teammates. On the surface, it sounds like an attitude problem but what it is, in this case, is a behavioral issue.

Related: To Be an Effective Leader, Sometimes You Need to Give Yourself a Time Out

If Jimbo is in a meeting and rolls his eyes and mumbles when someone else is speaking, that is observable inappropriate behavior. When Jimbo habitually shows up 20 minutes late for a team meeting that is measurable inappropriate behavior. And when Jimbo sends out an email that is laced with profanity to fellow team members that is tangible inappropriate behavior.

We need to define standards of behavior. It is just simply defining, in writing, what is and what is not appropriate behavior. I strongly recommend you pull a cross-functional team of employees -- not management -- together and ask them to develop behavioral standards. This approach gets more buy-in and ownership because they wrote it.

World-class organizations like Disney, Ritz Carlson, Zappos, The Navy Seals and Marriot all have very clear behavioral standards.

Organizations must have standards for behavior with:

  • Customers
  • Coworkers
  • Management
  • Vendors
  • Suppliers
  • The community

The standards apply to all interactions in person, in writing and on all technology. All standards need to be observable, tangible or measurable.

Related: 6 Actions Even the Least Confrontational Managers Must Take to Hold Employees Accountable

Once we have the behavioral standards in writing, we can then:

  • Train everyone in the new standards
  • Explain how they were developed
  • Explain why they are in place
  • Talk about world class organizations who have them
  • Explain how it will help the organization
  • Tell people what is expected of them with the standards
  • Tell them the rewards of meeting or exceeding the standards
  • Tell them the consequences if they don't meet the standards

Now let's get back to Jimbo. Once we have the behavioral standard in place, we can hold him accountable. If he steps out of line, we can show him in the standards, explain why the behavior was not appropriate, and start holding him accountable to them.

What is interesting when you starting getting people to change behavior and hold them accountable, their behavior often changes, but guess what else? It amazingly improves their attitude.

Shawn Doyle

President, New Light Learning and Development Inc.

Shawn Doyle is a professional speaker, author and executive coach. He is the president of New Light Learning & Development, a company that specializes in training and leadership-development programs.

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