Confronting the Employee Attitude Problem | Help for Supervisors

I wrote this post in March 2010 and it has enjoyed the highest number of page views. I realized that during my blog site switchover that searchers were having difficulty locating it. So it seemed like a good time to re-post it with a revised title.

employee attitude472_-3A supervisor’s nightmare—the employee with a “problem” attitude. Makes you feel like you just drew the Old Maid card.

What to do? You have an employee with a personality, work style, or temperament that is driving you crazy or aggravating others, making it harder to get the work done. And you don’t want to fire.

Performance appraisal is how supervisors save us from ourselves. 

Good supervisors use appraisal to teach and guide. Most employees with attitude issues aren’t aware of any problem: it’s just their way.

You know you’ve got an “attitude” problem employee when these things start to happen:

  • Peers would rather do a job alone than work with him/her
  • Discussion at a meeting goes dead when he/she speaks
  • S/he insists that work be done his/her way or hoards work
  • Direction is always questioned
  • S/he consistently criticizes, competes with, or dismisses the work of others

Each of these situations points to an attitude that needs defining. Where to start?

Connect “attitude” to observable behaviors that impact productivity.  

The first step in dealing with “attitude” issues is to demonstrate how the employee’s behavior is affecting the work. Here’s how you prepare:

  • Observe and take notes of specific instances (about 6) where the attitude was obvious.
  • Make a list of the impacts you saw, like defensiveness from others, resistance, stalled decisions, or delay.
  • Determine specifically how these impacts will affect the output of your work group.

Next meet with the employee to talk about their performance to date and your intention to coach them to improve:

  • Raise the attitude issue by sharing your recent observations, naming the dates and situations.
  • Explain what you observed and ask them to offer their perspective.
  • Be specific about the current and future impacts of their “attitude” on the productivity of the group.
  • Ask what they are willing to do to improve and how you can help them.

Raise the stakes and engage the employee in orchestrating his/her own change. 

Most of us don’t change unless there are negative consequences that we can avoid by doing things differently. The more we want to make a positive change and reap the rewards, the more invested we are in the work we need to do.

At this point, explain the next steps to the employee:

  • Together agree on a performance goal(s) for the balance of the year focused on the “attitude” change that needs to be made
  • Require the employee to write and submit a plan of action to achieve it
  • Establish how this change will be evaluated

Gather direct feedback from peers and internal customers. 

Nothing gets our attention more than knowing what others are saying about us, especially in the workplace. So here’s what you can do:

  • Develop 5-8 questions with the employee to be asked of their internal customers, focused on their approach to getting work done.
  • Identify 8-10 peers and internal customers that the employee will ask to answer those questions.
  • Develop a process and timing for collecting the feedback and submitting it confidentially to you.
  • Explain that, as the supervisor, you will also ask 8-10 people to respond.
  • Compile the feedback. Discuss summarized findings with the employee.
  • Reset his/her goals and strategies to improve.

If you are cringing about the effort this takes, I understand. But if you’ve ever fired anyone for poor performance, you know that the documentation, meetings, and general agony of that process make this look like a vacation.

The first pass at this requires the most work. The next time is much easier. How you handle your first “attitude” problem will gain you enormous credibility with your employees. It’s an approach that demonstrates your commitment to helping employees succeed. Being business fit means taking the lead when the chips are down. This is one of those times.

What kinds of “bad attitudes” have you witnessed in the workplace? How were they handled? Any ideas to add? Thanks.

Photo from

7 thoughts on “Confronting the Employee Attitude Problem | Help for Supervisors

  1. Pingback: Rude, Difficult, or Insubordinate? | No More Employees Behaving Badly | Business Fitness

  2. Pingback: Supervising a Bad Apple? Consider Making Applesauce | Handling Problem Employees | Business Fitness

  3. Pingback: Back to Basics #25: Improving Problem-Solving Skills in the Workplace | Internet Local Listings

  4. It strikes me that you have left out the first step here. First, do not assume that you as the most senior person or the majority of your colleagues are right! Start with an open question and let the employee tell you things from their side – ask if they feel misunderstood in any way, or how they feel about communications. Steer if needed but do not accuse or criticise at this stage.

    Remember especially if the employee is a functional expert and you and your peers are not, that they may know key pieces of information and may be working to different functional rules as they are in a different functional environment. Ask yourself if you really are better qualified and more experienced at the actual job the person with the supposed attitude problem has or not. If not proceed as I have outlined here first, and be prepared to challenge your own perceptions and your peers perceptions if the employee is right.

    As a consultant I was called into a business in crisis as they believed they had an attitude problem in an internal department. I conducted an investigation and it turned out that the department head in question was angry and frustrated because they had been criticised and publicly blamed for something that was in fact not their fault. To add insult to injury the organisation just closed rank around the most powerful person who was of course pointing the finger to hide their own culpability.

    We need to caution management against cross functional judgement. It most often leads to dysfunctional understandings and when power and politics get involved it often creates a long line of innocent scapegoats. In the interest of everyone’s career and for the good of your business please seek to understand first, before seeking to judge or be understood.



Leave a Reply