Combatting Attitude Problems

AndersonWe’ve all known them. We’ve all seen them. And like the proverbial “bad apple” the one does infect the whole bunch. Yet with a little knowledge, a little understanding, a bit of common sense, a lot of patience and more than a little luck, managers can deal with attitude problems in a positive and constructive way before they disrupt the entire department.

Most employees really, truly want to do a good job. Even the worst employee doesn’t take pride in his or her mistakes. And most people really want to be happy in their job. Miserable employees aren’t doing themselves or their managers any good, and they know it.

Now for the bad news. Most attitude problems take time to develop, and during this time they fester like an open wound. The new employee accepts a position with high hopes of a happy and productive future. Then, when this future doesn’t go according to plan, attitude problems develop. So if a “bad attitude” isn’t created overnight, it stands to reason that it can’t be fixed in a day either.

Unfortunately, many managers find it easier to overlook a bad attitude and hope or pretend that it will go away. But we all know that the festering wound won’t get any better without treatment. Problem employees seem to love infecting others. Their constant complaining, grumbling, and griping creates bad morale, and other employees with bad attitudes.

Next, their bad attitude finds its way to the customers, both with poor customer service, and often with negative comments about the company to those who are paying for its service.

Finally, problem employees refuse to do things, or do things in such an uncaring way that quality is compromised. They may refuse outright, or they may invent excuses for why they can’t do a job, work overtime, or handle an emergency situation. Either way, the result is not good.

Most employees with bad attitudes can be fixed. The first step is to listen. That may sound easy, but listening is one of the skills that many managers lack. Threats and intimidation will only motivate employees to find employment elsewhere. Developing good listening skills is not only valuable but necessary.

Listen to your problem employee and find out why he or she has a bad attitude. Does he or she feel unappreciated? Unfairly treated? Stuck in a rut with no possibility of advancement? Be sincere, compassionate, and respectful. Don’t interrupt or put the employee on the defensive, and don’t become defensive yourself. The employee may very well have legitimate reasons.

Once you have listened — and really listened — to the employee, then you can look for ways to help this employee achieve job satisfaction. According to Maslow, once people’s survival needs are met (food, shelter), they strive to achieve higher-level needs, such as self worth. Employees who are not achieving these needs may develop attitude problems.

For example, an employee may have a bad attitude because he feels that no one notices his work. The manager can then make a point to take notice of this employee’s work and offer appropriate praise. An employee who feels she has no opportunity for advancement might be encouraged to attend classes, or might be provided with a mentor. Some employees may reveal personal problems that require counseling. Refer them to the employee assistance program at your company.

It is important to be honest with the employee. Work with the employee to set and achieve realistic goals. Explain that you may not be able to fix every grievance. Don’t make unrealistic promises. A field service representative who wants a nine to five job, for example, might be encouraged to seek another career.

Finally, be patient and follow-up with your problem employee. If you’ve recommended a training program, follow up and ask how it is going. If you’ve decided that the employee needs praise as an incentive, then look for ways to give praise.

While having an employee with a bad attitude may hurt like an open wound, there are ways to prevent and treat the problem and the long term results are well worth the effort.

Dr. James Anderson is the Department Chair of Arts & Sciences at Johnson & Wales University’s Florida campus, where he also teaches Communication and Leadership Studies.