One Bad Attitude Can Spoil The Barrel

Written by Joe Driscoll

November 27, 2009

Barbara had her hands full keeping up with the department’s work load while training new people. She didn’t need a problem employee. “One ‘bad attitude’ can spoil the barrel.”

It wasn’t long after she had taken over as manager that Barbara realized she had a problem with Angela. Although Angela was one of the more experienced employees, there were certain assignments that she just wouldn’t accept. She always had a different excuse, but the results was always the same. Angela’s “bad attitude” had to change.

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 Angela’s behavior that has lead Barbara to conclude that Angela has 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.

You can try to get someone to “change” their attitude, but its 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.

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.

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!

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?

In Barbara’s case, it’s clear she has a problem with Angela’s behavior. Barbara has a right to expect that all department employees will share assignments equally. It’s clear from a long string of excuses that she is avoiding this responsibility. But the question remains, why?

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 Barbara can proceed with handling her problem with Angela, she 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.

Angela’s case was apparently a “won’t do”. Having followed an orderly problem solving process, Barbara continued by arranging for a private discussion with Angela, not to discuss her “bad attitude”, but rather to determine the reasons for avoiding job assignments. With Barbara focusing the discussion on the specific behavior problem in a non-judgmental manner, Angela reluctantly disclosed her problem.

Angela hadn’t been willing to admit it, but she was scared that she would fail at the jobs that were unfamiliar to her. She incorrectly assumed that the consequences of avoiding the work would be better than having her inabilities exposed.

Instead of being confronted with the frustration of dealing with an employee with a “bad attitude”, Barbara, by focusing on the specific unacceptable behavior, has pinpointed a tangible problem. She now has the opportunity to remedy the situation by implementing an appropriate corrective action.

Angela’s “won’t do” was a result of insecurity. Barbara was ready with the right support. She gave Angela the confidence to take the training by guaranteeing Angela that she could have all the time she needed to learn the new equipment. Barbara assured her that if she tried and was unable to master the new tasks, she would give her work assignments elsewhere.

When it’s your business, a “bad attitude” can be frustrating. 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.

The final results aren’t in as yet, but my guess is that Angela will be one of the best operators in the department.

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