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

How Performance Reviews Brand the Reviewer

It’s a draw. All the arguments about performance reviews are correct. The process can be fair or unfair, useful or a sham, legitimate or bogus.

It all comes down to us—the reviewers.  

Do you care? 

For many supervisors, it’s about the paper, not the process. We whine about writing comments, deciding on ratings, and holding those dreaded employee review meetings.

We forget that performance reviews are about feedback. The process is supposed to be a way to help employees do their best.

Samuel A. Culbert, a professor in the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles raises serious points about performance reviews in his NY Times article, “Why Your Boss Is Wrong About You:”

“In my years studying such reviews, I’ve learned that they are subjective evaluations that measure how ‘comfortable’ a boss is with an employee, not how much an employee contributes to overall results. They are an intimidating tool that makes employees too scared to speak their minds, lest their criticism come back to haunt them in their annual evaluations.”

He adds: “Think about it. Performance reviews are held up as objective assessments by the boss, with the assumption that the boss has all the answers.” And, of course, s/he doesn’t.

It takes two….

We often forget that job performance is a partnership. Supervisors and employees need to work together so that right effort generates desired results.

This only happens when the supervisor is clear about what each employee needs to do to achieve stated goals. There needs to be a conversation about this—a face-to-face dialogue so employees understand what they need to do to help the cause.

That means supervisors need to be evaluated on how well their employees perform. Why? Because the supervisor is supposed to provide direction, support, and encouragement so that their employees can succeed.

Culbert proposes “the performance preview” where “both boss and subordinate are held responsible for setting goals and achieving results.” This way, he adds, “…bosses…learn that it’s in their interest to listen to their subordinates….”

Too many supervisors don’t (or can’t) write measurable/observable goals, engage with employees, or collaborate with their teams. That makes the supervisor culpable when employee performance falls short.

Face yourself.

If you asked your employees, what kind of performance reviewer you are, would they say, you:

  • Just go through the motions
  • Are biased
  • Don’t really know what they do
  • Have no basis for evaluating them
  • Are objective and goals-focused
  • Care about their success
  • See your own performance reflected in them

Their answers brand you.

Horror and hurrah stories 

You don’t have to be in the workforce too long to experience the upside and downside of performance review. Here are examples of mine:

Horror: As a high school teacher, my supervisor was expected to observe me in the classroom at least annually. One year he chose a day when I was giving a full-period test. He sat in the back of the room, watched me pass out the test, give instructions, monitor the students, and collect their papers. My rating—Outstanding (My reaction—disgust)

Hurrah: As a corporate manager, I worked for a VP who knew the drill. Annually, he laid out his department goals, requiring each manager to do the same for his/her work group. I met with the VP to discuss and finalize my goals.

At quarterly status reviews, we’d discuss which goals were in good shape and which ones were at risk, framing recovery strategies that made the best use of remaining time and resources.

Each year there were never any surprises during my formal performance review.

(I  was expected to (and did) follow the same process with the employees who reported to me.)

Earn a positive employee rating. 

There’s no hiding the truth from your employees. They decide about the kind of person and supervisor you are by the way you review them, more than the rating itself. A strong team starts with a supervisor who’s part of it. Let that be you.

Photo from Robert Higgins via Flickr

Un-Stink Your Goals! Enjoy the Sweet Smell of Success.

Have you started moaning yet? It’s time to write your next year’s performance goals. We don’t want to do it, mostly because we think they stink. 

Goals are your scorecard. 

When we play games, we keep score because we want to know how we did. That’s part of the fun. 

Organizations pay us to play for them. There’s a lot at stake, so we often feel uneasy about how well we’ll score. 

That’s because we don’t know: 

  • what we’re really expected to achieve
  • how we’re being measured 

The good news is that we can fix this.

Set yourself up to win! 

Goals have to be written or you and your boss will keep revising them in your heads until they fit whatever you’ve done or not done. This can set you up for a big goose egg. 

Goals have to state what you’re accountable for delivering. Yes, this is about getting stuff done that you can measure and/or see. No smoke…no mirrors. 

Goals need to cover work  beyond your job routines. They are about stretching, differentiating, and setting you up for growth. 

Goals need to demonstrate that you “get” the business that you’re in and the impact that you’re positioned to make. 

Write them right. 

You should know, all year long, how you’re doing on your goals by the way they’re written. You can only do that if your goal statements are measurable and/or observable. Try to write at least one for every business category you impact. 

Here are examples of “sweet” year-end goals you’d want compared to “stinky” ones you don’t: 


  • Sweet—Reduce administrative expenses by 15%
  • Stinky—Improve cash flow and reduce expenses 


  • Sweet—Reduce cycle time to bring new products to market by 60 days
  • Stinky—Process paperless claims promptly and effectively 


  • Sweet—Achieve an average rating of “very good” on the annual customer satisfaction survey
  • Stinky—Ensure satisfied investors 


  • Sweet—Increase employee availability by 5%
  • Stinky—Improve employee morale

 Sometimes we have jobs or assignments where we rely on others to deliver on the goal’s we’re accountable for. In those situations, our goal statement might be: 

  • Sweet—Provide leadership to ensure the successful testing and implementation of the new human resources compensation system on budget by Jun 30, 20__
  • Stinky—Implement a compensation management system in HR 

Make it a game with yourself! 

I write personal business goals every year that keep me focused and track my progress. Last year my stretch goals were on social media, an area where I was a bumbling neophyte. 

My goal was to: Increase visibility on social media to build my network by: 

  • Writing a minimum of 104 blog posts –exceeded
  • Attaining a minimum of 600 career/business Twitter followers—exceeded
  • Increasing my fan pages “likes” to 200 each—exceeded
  • Increasing my Linkedin followers to 250—exceeded
  • Utilizing video to share information—not attained
  • Learning about podcasting—not attained   

Since I had no idea about social media’s power, the subgoals, which were exceeded, really aren’t where I now know I can take them, so I’ll ratchet them up for 2011. 

For two subgoals,  I didn’t deliver at all. (See what happens when you don’t create a metric for scorekeeping!) I’ll need to decide if I want to carry those goals over to 2011 and, if so, make a “scorable” commitment. 

If I hadn’t written these goals down, I’d have no real basis for assessing my progress or goals for moving forward. 

Empower yourself 

Your goals are one way to take control of your career. If your boss suggests stinky goals statements, offer to rewrite sweet ones so you both can keep score. It will set you apart and demonstrate your willingness to be accountable, a real career differentiator that will never fail you. So now, you’re up. Swing for the seats! 

What have been your experiences with goal-setting? Any tips to add? Thanks.

Why Managers Don’t Confront—Fear of Crying

Remember Tom Hanks’ line in the movie, A League of Their Own, about a girls professional softball team: “Are you crying? There’s no crying. There’s no crying in baseball.” Hanks’ character isn’t the only manager who recoils from crying on the job. 

For the most part, the “crying” issue is about women who “might” cry or have had a “history” of crying on the job. The very prospect makes many (usually male) managers’ blood run cold. 

Get a grip 

Our job as managers is to confront work-related problems on our watch. It would be paradise if every employee performed perfectly from day one. But last I checked, all the apples were eaten.

 The reality is that we don’t know for sure what anyone’s reaction will be to the feedback we give. It could be:

  • Dead silence or an angry retort
  • Jubilation or rapid-fire questions
  • A sigh of relief or CRYING  

Most managers would say, “For everything, except the crying, I’d know what to say or do. I wouldn’t feel so helpless or hard-hearted.” 

The crying game 

As managers, we are not psychologists. It’s not our job to analyze our employees. But we do know that crying is an emotional response by certain employees when caught off-guard by unwanted feedback. 

A crying employee is not the same as a crying family member or friend. It’s not appropriate for us, as managers, to comfort physically or to change our message. So what should we do? 

Here’s a scenario: At a performance feedback meeting with your employee, you explain that her performance is unsatisfactory and she’s being placed on 3 month’s probation. She begins to cry. 

You next steps are to: 

  • Remain quiet at your desk or conference table for a couple minutes, giving her time to compose herself
  • Then ask if she is prepared to continue the conversation about next steps
  •  If she says “yes” continue with your message
  •  If she says “no” or it’s obvious that she’s too distressed, tell her: “I can see that you  need some time to gather yourself. Let’s postpone the rest of our conversation for now and get together in an hour.”
  • Resume the meeting as rescheduled and complete what you need to cover 

Please remember: You did not create the problem that led to the actions you had to take. The employee did.  

Employees have many ways to respond emotionally to situations. Although crying is one, it’s rare in most business settings. 

Any manager who does not confront an employee because s/he fears potential crying will soon deliver this blaring message throughout the office: “If you want to keep the heat off yourself, cry every time I (your boss) look at you cross-eyed.” 

Men cry and so have I…. 

I once contracted with an outside training consultant, gave him lots of work, and provided executive entrée. I treated him as an ally until he started abusing these privileges. When I confronted him about my lost trust, he broke down. 

At a critical time in my career, I was asked to manage a huge department where I was in over my head. My VP mentor, John, initiated a meeting with me and the senior VP, where he volunteered to give me a hand. I was overcome with feelings of inadequacy, struggling to disguise most of my tears. 

In both cases, the confronting launched the fix, the tears dried, and right outcomes were achieved. It’s difficult but it makes for positive change. 

There’s no crying in business…. 

The odds of an employee crying when you deliver bad news are slim. If s/he does, that’s okay. It’s a manager’s job to manage. You shouldn’t be cold or insensitive when confronting but factual, balanced and fair. 

That’s how you set the right context for your message and minimize any emotional response.  To abdicate your responsibility to manage fairly is a disservice to your employees. If you let the fear of crying make you a less effective manager, everyone loses. 

Have you had a “crying at work” experience? What caused it and how was it handled?

Supervisory Courage or Cowardice? | Handling Employees With “Attitude”

Do you have one of these? An employee who’s negative, resistant, complaining and blaming, or uncooperative. One is bad enough, but more than one can be unbearable.

What you resist persists. 

Confronting behavior problems is no fun, but it’s a supervisor’s job! Employees with “bad” attitudes won’t get any better when the supervisor:

  • Ignores them
  • Makes excuses for them
  • Accommodates the them
  • Accepts them
  • Rewards them by giving in 

The hard reality is that supervisors need to TALK to these employees about what they are doing and why.

That “talk” word makes many a supervisor’s blood run cold. They often don’t want to face that employee, don’t know how to conduct or control the meeting, or aren’t clear about the outcome they want.

So they keep putting off the confrontation until work is compromised, other employees are negatively affected, and their effectiveness as a supervisor is questioned. The problem persists!

Start by trying to understand the cause. 

To get the ball rolling, supervisors needs to accept two premises:

  • There is an underlying reason why an employee’s attitude is “bad” and the supervisor needs to find that out. 
  • The employee owns his/her attitude problem. The supervisor is responsible for mitigating its negative impact on work group performance.   

Too many supervisors feel that they need to defend themselves when they confront. Remember: It’s the employee’s attitude that is causing the problem.  The onus is on them to improve, not the supervisor.

Take charge. 

Don’t delay. Meet with the employee as soon as you observe the unwanted attitude.  Start by identifying the unacceptable attitude/behavior you have observed like:

  • Negative or accusative statements
  • Work not submitted on time or according to instructions
  • Fault finding with other employees or the supervisor
  • Defensiveness or being dismissive of others
  • Bullying or actions that incite conflict 

State the specific instance(s) where you personally observed the attitude or behavior. State the impact that these behaviors have on the work.

Ask, “What is driving your attitude/behavior?” Then listen. Ask for clarification until you understand what’s behind it all.

When you think you’ve got it, say, “I want to be sure I understand what your reasons are. I heard you say____. Is that correct?”

Solutions are both art and science. 

To get behavior change, there is an element of negotiation and a bit of compromise. Supervisors need to reinforce exactly the behavior they expect and how they know when they are getting it. You need to make that clear up front.

The next step is to ask, “Are you willing to make the effort to change?” If the answer is “No,” then you need to tell the employee that his/her job will be at risk.

If the answer is “Yes,” then ask, “What will you do to turn your attitude around? How can I, as your supervisor, help/support you?” The employee commits to action and the supervisor to support.

Next you schedule specific times when you will meet to discuss progress. To start, that’s at least weekly. As things improve, less frequently.

The employee needs to understand that you expect to see significant improvement within a 3 month period. Along the way, you’ll be restating your expectations and giving specific feedback.

The effort and consequences must be real. 

The time supervisors invest in an employee with a “bad” attitude is significant. The reward is a positive turn-around. However, not everyone will change, so termination of employment is a potential consequence.

When you invest time in employees who are difficult, you also make an impression on your good employees. They will see that you care, observe what it means to supervise, and accept the fairness of the outcome.

Business fit supervisors are prepared and ready to face and resolve tough challenges. It’s no picnic but it’s worth it!

What experiences have you had supervising or working with an employee with a “bad” attitude? Did you know the cause? What happened to him/her?

Gotcha! “Job Mistakes 101” | A Performance Leg Up

Errors. Mistakes. Gaffs. We worry about them. Try to avoid them. But they lurk and get us when we’re not looking. When our mistakes teach us something, they have value. When they don’t, we’ve failed ourselves.

“If you never make a mistake, you aren’t doing anything.”

That’s a great adage. I know people who:

  • Can’t decide or act for fear of making a mistake
  • Work in dread that they will make an error
  • Avoid the “risk” of a new opportunity 

Mistakes (even other people’s) are great teachers. That’s how you’ve been learning all along, from riding a bike to negotiating a good car deal.

Trial and error is a good thing. It’s how we figure things out.

Since we aren’t made to be perfect, we make mistakes. If you keep making the same mistakes, that’s a problem. Repeated gaffs will end up on your performance appraisal. So you’ll need to fix that:

  • Improve your job skills and/or knowledge 
  • Pay attention to the details
  • Care about doing things right
  • Use established work processes
  • Ask, if you don’t know, before you act 

Your employer’s big concern is the cost of error, and it should be. The consequences of mistakes can be:

  • Loss of revenue or time
  • Disruption to customers and other employees
  • Regulation or code violation penalties/fines
  • Financial impacts or law suits
  • Loss of productivity or damaged equipment 

Now think about your job. What are the potential consequences of errors that you might make? If you kept making them, how would they affect the ability of your work group, your boss, your peers and you to be successful?

Little mistakes can add up, but only if we don’t care about fixing them. That’s why supervisor feedback is so important. No one goes to work wanting to make mistakes, but when we do, we need to be told so we won’t repeat them.

For most of us, the likelihood of making a catastrophic error is pretty small.  

All mistakes are not created equal.

As a manager, I was responsible for a monthly electricity rate update for key customers, a priority initiative for the CEO. These updates included sensitive copy and graphs that were painstakingly reviewed by countless experts. In spite of that, I managed to grind one out each month.

The February issue was my nemesis. It started out as the January issue but the up-tight review process pushed it into February. After the data had been updated and approved, off to the printer it went.

A day later, I got my copy before the bulk mailing started. For some reason, I read it one more time and saw that that the chart still said January even though it was the February issue. I’d missed the error.  

I called my VP, expecting to be reamed out. I was sweating.

“Okay,” he said. “Tell Corporate Communications to make the fix and get the printer to redo it.”

Stupidly I asked, “What should I do with all these copies.”

“Throw them out,” he quipped. That printing cost $10,000.  

The cost of mistakes is relative.  

This was a big lesson for me. A $10,000 mistake to a $1.2 billion company is pocket change. It’s still hard for me to get my head around that, even though I’ve personally seen multi-million dollar errors dismissed almost as easily.

It taught me to keep things in perspective. A lot of people could have caught that error. They didn’t. This project was on my watch, so I owned the mistake.

Others had much bigger fish to fry that day. My project was a communications update. If that piece had been mailed to customers, I’m sure that fur would have flown. In a sense I got points for avoiding that.

It’s important for us all to see mistakes as opportunities to become more business fit: to sharpen our skills and senses, learn how to improve things, and avoid turning our missteps into shackles. Be brave!  Be careful!

Have you ever made a “big” work mistake? How did you recover? What did you learn? We’ll all be better for your lesson.

Sizing You Up | Dependability Ratings Matter

Being there when expected. Stepping up when needed. Always delivering the goods. Dependability counts big time for getting a  job, a good performance appraisal, and a promotion.  So, are you? 

The way we perform is a measure of the standards we bring. 

Dependability showcases commitment. Are we as good as our word? When we agree to do job, will we give it our best no matter what the circumstances? This can be a big test. It sure was for me. 

A farmer friend of mine was in a pinch. He had about ten acres of alfalfa hay that needed to be baled one Saturday afternoon but had no help available. So I agreed to fill in even though I was no farm hand. 

At that time, I co-owned a three-year-old thoroughbred gelding that was being trained as a show horse. My partner, who trained him, came over that same morning to give him a light ride.

 It was a muggy, buggy, 90-degree day. The horse performed so nicely that the trainer suggested I hop on to get a feel for his easy gait. 

He was a big horse so I needed a leg up to mount. When I was in air, he shifted suddenly because the bugs were annoying him. Instead of landing in the saddle, I came down his rump. He bucked, flipped me in the air, and I landed face first on the ground. 

Although I was wearing a helmet, that didn’t cover my jaw or the rest of me. I heard my neck and back crunch at landing and knew I’d loosened some teeth. I lay there for about 15 long minutes before I could get up. 

My trainer friend was relieved when I was upright. So was I. But all I could think of was that hay laying.

After resting a bit, although I was unbelievably sore, off to the fields I went.

The farmer couldn’t understand at first why I was limping toward the tractor and baler. When I told him, I don’t think it registered. Ten acres of alfalfa that, if not baled at exactly the right time, are worthless. That was his priority.

 His job was to drive the machinery (there’s an art to that) and mine was to hook each bale off the chute and stack it five rows high on the wagon. It was a terribly hard and hot job for me, especially under the circumstances! But we got that crop baled at its peak, ensuring its market value. 

Dependability builds our brand and makes our value visible. 

Lots of people heard that story. It validated me among the hard working, career farmers whose world I was coming to know. It also taught me a lot about how important my “word” was to me. 

Everyone sees or hears about what we do, especially against difficult odds. It can become lore, dubbing some people heroic, angelic, or mythic.   

Think of the people you’ve heard of who: 

  • Never miss a day of work
  • Take assignments that are difficult or high risk
  • Speak up when there’s an injustice
  • Lend a hand to a colleague or customer who is struggling
  • Give up free time to cover a shift
  • Set personal challenges aside to get the job done   

If we can’t be counted on, we’ll soon be counted out. 

The backbone of any career strategy is to build a reputation of dependability. It can come with positive brand labels like selfless, dedicated, and team player. 

Being indispensable is a by-product of dependability, especially when you step forward to solve problems, create remedies, and anticipate issues before they become nightmares. 

When our resumes looks like we’re running from the law, our time off records like we’re a magnet for germs, or our performance appraisals like we’re asleep at our desks, it’s time to reexamine what we’re really committed to.

Business fitness is about being prepared and ready to move forward. Being ready is about being committed—dependable, reliable, trustworthy, and responsible. High standards are good reasons for you to feel proud. 

Have you ever had your dependability tested? How did it go? What did you learn? These moments can be eye-opening.