One Bad Attitude Can Spoil The Barrel

Written by Joe Driscoll

November 27, 2009

“One bad apple will spoil the barrel.” Same holds true for attitudes. One bad one can spoil the barrel. What’s a manager to do?

Bad attitudes are as difficult to get your hands on as bad apples are hard to find in the bottom of the barrel. You know there’s something wrong when things don’t smell right, but its hard to see exactly what to do about it.

Marshall was one of the partners in a small office. He was talented and successful, even likable on a good day. But when things didn’t go his way, he made life miserable for everyone around him. No one was quite sure what made him fly off the handle like he did, but his attitude made life uncomfortable for everyone in the office.

How do you change a “bad attitude”? The answer is you can’t, so don’t waste your time trying. You’ll probably only make matters worse.

It’s behavior that leads us to conclude that there’s a “bad attitude”. Focus on changing the behavior. Attitudes are subjective and intangible. Behavior is tangible. It’s behavior that impacts performance. If you observe acceptable behavior, you wouldn’t know there was an attitude problem.

It was Marshall’s unacceptable behavior that caused everyone to say he had an “attitude” problem. It was his behavior, his rantings and ravings that was causing the “spoil in the barrel.”

You might be able to get someone to “change” their attitude, but it’s not the sort of thing you can fix by tomorrow. Attitudes are developed over time and change over time. Unacceptable behavior, on the other hand, is something that you can rightfully expect to change right now. It can be accomplished with tangible results.

It really didn’t make any difference how Marshall felt. He probably didn’t feel any different than any one else when things didn’t go well. The problem was how he reacted to it, his behavior.

Before initiating corrective action, ask yourself if the behavior that you are concerned about is important. If the current situation is not detrimental to accomplishing your primary objectives, it might be wise to ignore it. If it is important, you must take corrective action.

Whatever was the cause of Marshall’s attitude, one thing was for certain, his behavior was unacceptable. His partners needed to realize that regardless of his attitude, his behavior had to change.

If you are aware of behavior that requires corrective action, other people are too. If you allow the situation to continue, you are sending a message that the behavior is acceptable. That doesn’t mean you should over-react, but it does mean you must act!

Whether you’re dealing with partners or employees, to rationally determine if you have an on-the-job problem you need to answer four questions. What results do you expect? What results are you getting? What is the difference? Why does the difference exist?

While it may not be true in extreme cases like Marshalls, “bad attitudes” at work are usually related problems people are having in doing their jobs. There are three reasons why people don’t do it, whatever it may be. Either they don’t know how to do it, they can’t do it, or they won’t do it. Before a manager can change a behavior, he must examine these alternatives and determine the real cause of the problem.

If a person doesn’t know how to do a job, providing information and instruction is the appropriate remedy.

If a person can’t do the job, work at building the skills necessary. Consider the confidence level, give an opportunity for practice, and provide the support they need to meet a personal challenge. If there is a fundamental skill or aptitude problem, consider reassignment.

When it’s your business, a “bad attitude” can be frustrating. While you can’t change an attitude, you can’t accept rotten behavior either. Focus on the behavior that leads you to conclude that there is an attitude problem. Determine the significance of the behavior, its cause, and then take appropriate actions. In any event, don’t let a bad attitude spoil the barrel.

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