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

Afraid to Innovate or Don’t Know How? | Problem-solving Skills Pay

“Innovativeness” is one of those performance appraisal categories that often befuddle supervisors and employees. 

We often don’t know how the term actually applies to us. After all, we’re just doing our jobs. Innovation seems to have more to do with creative work (maybe in marketing) or in science (like in a lab somewhere). Too often we just don’t think of ourselves as being innovative as we go about our daily work.

To innovate, though, isn’t as overblown an action as it may sound. It just means “to begin or introduce something new.”

All it takes to be innovative is:

  • Our idea for doing something in a new way
  • Introducing it to others whose involvement or approval we need
  • Setting it in motion once we have the okay

That’s not so hard, right?

Now, what is it again?

Innovative ideas, large or small, take many forms like a:

  • Fix for things not functioning well
  • New plan to refocus a faltering job
  • Redesigned process that increases efficiency and effectiveness
  • Workaround to keep work flowing until a lasting solution is achieved
  • Message that reduces turmoil or raises optimism

In order to innovate, we need to:

  • Look at our work with fresh eyes and see if there’s a better way
  • Be willing to make an effort to influence our boss to accept our idea
  • Overcome the fear that our idea may get rejected
  • Accept accountability for our idea if it doesn’t work

Your innovativeness is a sign that solving the problem is personally important to you.

Inherent in innovation is your commitment to doing things right. Each of us has the power to innovate if and when we want to.

A draining idea 

I live in a 200-year-old, log farmhouse situated in a hollow where the water table is close to the surface. Most of my basement floor is dirt. During extended periods of drenching rain, the water table rises up and visits my basement.

This happens infrequently, but when it does, it’s a big issue. For years I managed the “big” water with three sump pumps and a French drain. But if the power went out I was literally sunk. (I’ve had as much as 3 ½ feet of water there.)

I explained the problem one dry summer’s day to my contractor, Pete. He asked to look over the situation and think about it. The next day he said, “I think I can fix your problem by creating a gravity-feed drain that runs from the lowest point in the basement, out to the street.

He set up his transit in the basement, shot the angle, hired two young guys to dig the inside trench, hired another guy with a backhoe to dig a trench to the street, laid the perforated pipe, and then we waited for two years.

You can see in the photo here that it worked amazingly. To me, Pete’s a hero.

What Pete did was innovation. He had an idea, introduced it to me (his customer), convinced me to go ahead, and took responsibility for the outcome. Not only did his problem-solving skills work, they saved me money and anxiety.

Why bother 

Each time you find a better way, you increase your value on the job. Your innovativeness becomes a major part of your personal brand identity, and it will likely create evolving:

  • Buzz about you
  • Exposure to movers and shakers
  • Opportunities for unique assignments
  • Recognition and reward
  • More business

Of all the strengths that you can develop to enhance your career, innovativeness is likely to do the most for you. To be innovative is to effectively demonstrate such traits as problem- solving, analysis, influencing, initiative, and calculated risk-taking.

Whenever you can deliver an idea that makes the workplace and the business operate more effectively, you are contributing in ways that make you stand out. The more business fit you are, the more tools you have in place to bring out your inner innovator. Now go for it.

When Your Career’s Sagging, Get Yourself Business Fit.

Ever had that old sagging feeling? It’s when: 

  • Nothing at work excites you.
  • Your motivation has flat-lined.
  • The signs that “you’re going nowhere” loom.
  • Your energy is drained.  

Even a Red Bull can’t jolt us out of that. 

Wake up! 

When our careers are sagging, it’s because we’ve allowed it. After all, we own them.

They’re a function of our choices—the education we pursued and the work experiences we’ve accepted. 

Each year of our careers is like a professional sports season. It’s a cycle: The draft (our hiring or retention), then camp (team alignment and goal setting), and the season (the work and its outcomes). Then it starts over again. There’s a calculated method to all of this, because, after all, it’s big business. 

Similarly, our companies make money through the contributions we make along with their other employees. When we act like the company is holding us against our wills in careers we’ve chosen and allowed to sag, something’s wrong about us. 

If that’s how you feel, it’s time to ratchet up your business fitness. 

Step up! 

Clayton Kendrick-Holmes is the sixth year, head coach for Maritime College in New York, a 2010 championship contending, football team. He’s also a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserves being deployed to Afghanistan in November 2010. 

Coach Kendrick-Holmes promotes the importance of principles over personalities with his team. In place of having his players’ names on their jerseys, he has them select words like accountability, family, respect, character, and work ethic for their backs—a driving principle that motivates their play. It shows what’s important to them. 

A sagging career often lacks a driving force, that compelling reason to dig deep, test ourselves, take risks, and work hard for success. 

Ask yourself what’s causing you to feel in a career slump. Think about what you want from your career: Maybe your word is fortune, change, service, security, collaboration, quality, innovation, or connection

The word(s) we choose help us figure out what’s missing in our careers today, so we can make changes. 

Buck up. 

Knowing your personal drivers is a starting point. Now you need to look at where you are. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What kind of work gives me the most satisfaction? Where can I find it?
  • What causes me to feel inadequate on my job? What am I ready to do about it?
  • Who are the colleagues I count on and who count on me for leverage and support? What can I do to get more connected?
  • What are the knowledge and skill gaps that I need to plug so I can grow?  

Think of yourself as the professional you are: Then ask yourself whether or not you have prepared yourself physically (knowledge and skills) and mentally (savvy and toughness) to compete for the career that you want, just like any serious athlete. 

Business is about competition like any sport. You’re a player. The more business fit you are, the more valuable you are to the team and to yourself. When you aren’t, you risk getting cut. 

The discipline of building your business fitness is like an athlete’s workout/practice regimen but without the sweat. That includes knowing how to find out what’s really going on around you and how to deal with it effectively.   


I write in my book, Business Fitness

“If you start out on a journey to success without a clear picture of what you are pursuing, then what you get in the end will be some kind of default result. You might like that result or not. Either way you have nothing to complain about since you had no particular direction in the first place.” 

I advocate taking charge of your work life as much as possible, by committing to your success vision, building your capabilities, and moving forward with courage. When you’re business fit, you’re ready for most everything. Time to get pumped up! 

What words best describe what drives you? How has that focus helped keep your career from sagging? Thanks for commenting.

When Leadership Goes Bad, The Reasons Run Deep!

It’s no picnic running things, especially when dysfunction runs rampant or performance is tanking. All too often, we get promoted to leadership positions when things are in disarray. 

The lure, of course, is our chance to be heroic, a miracle worker, a superstar! So we say, “Yes, I relish the challenge.” They say, “Great! Good luck,” something we’ll desperately need. 

Classic mistakes 

As soon as we get tapped as the “leader,” we want to get into it. Bring on the challenges: 

  • Take on the budget
  • Get programs implemented
  • Develop new initiatives
  • Rally the employees
  • Resolve old issues 

In time, we may sense that things are going but not all that well. There’s edginess in the air, push-back by some employees, intermittent complaining, and a lack of enthusiasm. 

Surprisingly, your staff starts branding you with labels like: 

  • Impatient and driven
  • Insensitive and uncaring
  • Blunt and disrespectful
  • Arrogant and self-centered
  • A poor listener and distant 

Smart leaders know that the focus of their jobs is not the work per se: It’s on the people doing it—their employees. 

The right fixes 

Demoralized, angry, and unhappy employees become the ruin of any leader. It may take a while, but it gets you in the end. 

When leaders realize or are told that the problems they have inherited are not being resolved, two erroneous conclusions are often drawn: 

  • “It must be my personality or the way I’m coming across.”
  • “I just need to give my employees more pep talks or maybe a team- building program to get us on the same page.” 

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. Smart leaders, facing difficulties, don’t ask, “What’s wrong with me?” Instead they ask, “What’s wrong here?” 

Employees rally around a leader who shows them how they can make a difference. They thrive on structure, role clarity, performance expectations, and feedback. 

If you want to turn dysfunction into employee engagement, here are the essentials: 

  • A current state of the department presentation by the leader
  • A goals grid, specifying the specific financial, operations, stakeholder, and employee goals for the current year
  • Updated position descriptions that identify job scope, accountabilities, responsibilities/duties, and qualifications
  • Specific performance goals for each employee, cascading from the department goals
  • Quarterly reports of department performance against goals 

These tools let employees know the priorities are that you, the leader, are committed to. This is how they know what counts and what doesn’t. 

I worked with two standout leaders who hired me because they were told that they had behavioral traits that were problematic. One was told that her communications style was too blunt: The other that he came across as being impatient. They both: 

  • Had taken over organizations that were in death spiral
  • Went hard at trying to right a sinking ship
  • Assumed that employees understood the severity of the situation and would follow their lead 

Instead, employees resisted, criticized, and became obstacles. They really didn’t understand how dire things were. They couldn’t see the big picture, blamed these leaders for problems past and present, resisted change, and created crippling organizational noise. 

The reality was that each leader was strong, smart, and committed. What they lacked was knowledge of performance best practice tools and how to implement them.  So they wisely regrouped, took stock, and put into place the structure employees needed. As a result, they each created a lasting fix.

Great results 

It’s a leader’s job to give employees the tools, support, and environment they need to do great work. Leaders can’t succeed without their employees, since leaders do very little “real” work. Instead, they provide structure, information and insights; remove obstacles; develop the employee capabilities; and generate momentum.   

It would be nice if every leader had a personality that we liked, but that isn’t necessary. No matter how business fit we are, we still need our leaders to provide the platform we need to do good work. If they haven’t, be bold and ask for it! 

What have been your experiences with a leader who ran amok? Was there ever a fix?

People Problems Afoot? Get the Words Out! | Supervisors As Challenged Communicators

“I’m speechless!” Ever said that? It usually pops out when we’re given unexpected praise or are caught unaware.

Being “speechless” is a problem when we’re expected to say exactly the right thing when something important is on the line.

Keep your foot in your shoe. 

We rightly expect our bosses to be good communicators. We need them to solve problems and motivate us by saying the right things at the right time.

Being a good communicator isn’t just about stringing words together. It means:

  • Correctly sizing up a situation
  • Understanding employee motivation
  • Effectively assessing behavior
  • Internalizing different perspectives 

All of this needs to be done before we utter a word.

Words are powerful things.  

I make no excuses for bosses who are poor communicators, but I do empathize with them. Most bosses supervise others the way they were supervised.  They often get promoted for their technical competence not their “people skills.”

There are other contributing factors too:

  • Lack of training on how to use words effectively*
  • Inability to articulate performance behavior
  • Fear of employee backlash or criticism
  • Unwillingness to risk conflict
  • Arrogance and/or disregard for employees 

*(Communication training is a workplace staple, but it’s usually more about interpersonal dynamics and listening than about language.)

Here’s what this poor communication often looks like:

  • Your supervisor gives you no feedback on your performance during the year, then rates you “needs improvement.”
  • Your boss says nothing about your absences until you get a termination warning notice.
  • You report that you routinely hear inappropriate remarks within your team and your boss says or does nothing.
  • A work group employee is visibly despondent and the boss ignores the situation. 

It’s not that supervisors don’t want to address these situations. It’s that they don’t know what to say or how to say it. Their fear of saying the wrong thing outweighs the risk of having problems escalate.

The right words can turn straw into gold.

When you’re a supervisor, the company expects you to handle the people issues. That means you need lots of words in your tool kit. 

Supervisors need to know what to say and how to say it, using words that don’t trigger reactions they don’t want while getting the results they do.

Successful communication is also about how you start the conversation, tone of voice, body language, and your intentions.

Try these on for size: 

Situation: I had an employee who always over-explained things. It was starting to alienate colleagues and detract from her developing brand as a great project manager. She was a very sensitive person but unaware of this situation.

Communication: Beth, we’ve worked together for a long time. You know how much I count on you to get things done the right way. I’ve been paying special attention to your presentations over the past month and noticed that you give more information than your listeners want. I often see them tune out. Have you ever noticed that?[Nod]. I’d like to help you address that. Are you game? [Yes.] 

Situation: The company assigned a fellow to my workgroup to see if he could be “saved.” I asked to meet with him one morning and he came bopping into my office, quite care free. He said, “You wanted to see me, Boss.”  

Communication: Harry, I’d rather you not address me as “Boss.” [“Well, you don’t have to be thin- skinned about it.] After all, Harry, I don’t address you as Employee.” [He asks, “Then what should I call you?] Just call me Dawn. [Okay.] 

Start with you heart in the right place. 

Honesty and kindness can give you a pass when your words aren’t the best. Words that are clear, factual, and non-judgmental will serve you well. To be business fit is to stay current, fully equipped with the words you need to communicate effectively every day! Think Webster!

Can you share a time when words got you into or out of trouble? How would you assess their power at the time? This’ll fire up our discussion.


Wanted: High Flying Career. Will Work Without a Net! | Risking Failure for Success

High wire acts. Acrobats. Human cannonballs. Circus careers come with big performance expectations and high stakes. The consequences of failure can be dire.

Successful circus performers are masters of precision, flexibility, teamwork, and consistency. They own every move they make for their own good and the safety of others.

Flying through the air on a trapeze with no net below is the measure of a career that you own. When you don’t expect to fail, you’ve arrived.

What’s your act? 

Everyone wants an exciting career:

  • Marketing lead on a big account
  • Editor at a hot shot publication
  • Start up business owner
  • Global account exec
  • Ecotourism director 

What does all this take? Do we just grab a chair and dash into a cage with the Bengal tigers, listening for the roar of the crowd? 

A career is a progression of our work life. It doesn’t just appear. The jobs we take are how we get things started. There are no guarantees that those jobs will add up to a career, particularly one that makes us feel successful. We just give it our best shot.

Risk is the route to reward!

Fear is the death knell for our careers: fear of failure, the boss, new assignments, change, or rocking the boat.

Playing the game to get a raise, promotion, or plum assignment isn’t risk taking. It’s maneuvering within the safe zone.

Career risks are about owning your choices and the consequences of your decisions, good or bad. That’s when you feel the exhilaration of flying through the air without a tether or that proverbial net. That’s when you know you are fully in charge of your career and, perhaps, your life.

Unfortunately, most of us aren’t as brave as those circus aerialists. We make decisions expecting that:

  • If it doesn’t work out, we can rely our parents or spouse to bail us out
  • We can go back to the job we left behind or a prior employer
  • Going back to school will ultimately land us a better job 

We tend not to take risks that will leave us in a helpless heap if we come up short.

What are you willing to wager?

This is the quandary: Because self-preservation is a strong motivator, how do we balance our risk tolerance and our success aspirations?

Start out by being honest about what you want to achieve and why. What will make you really proud of yourself? What choices are you willing to stand up for in spite of the potentially negative reactions of people you care about? What sacrifices are you ready to make?

Look at professional athletes. Many come from backgrounds fraught with struggle and want. So they bet everything on the outside chance they will become big time athletes. If they fail, nothing much changes.

Look at children of privilege who were expected to go into the family business but want to do their own thing instead. That’s what happened with Warren Buffet’s, son, Peter, who became an Emmy Award winning musician his way. If he’d failed, he’d have paid the price on many levels.

Look at William Gates Gill, author of How Starbuck’s Saved My Life, who lost his high-powered marketing job at J. Walter Thompson Advertising. At 63 he took a service job at a Starbuck’s store in New York City because he was down and out. If he failed at that, he was done.

Fold the net…Find the glory!

Career success feels sweetest when you’ve made it your way. Safety nets are often an illusion and can become a prison. Tune out the naysayers who chant: “Girls/guys don’t do that,” “What if this all goes wrong,” “You don’t know what you’re doing.” Think for yourself and about yourself. Don’t fear risk. Embrace it smartly.

When you’re business fit, you’ve thought through the options. You’ve done your due diligence. You know where you’re headed. You’ve inventoried your capabilities. You’re packed and ready to run away to the circus! See you there!

What was the biggest career risk you’ve taken? How did it work out? Can’t wait to hear!

Come to the Rescue or Let ‘Em Squirm? Your Call! | The Value of Leadership Intervention

Ever been in a tight spot at work? Over your head? Out of your league? I sure have.

Terrible thoughts start to take over:

  • I’ve lost all credibility.
  • My career is toast.
  • I’m going to hear about this.
  • This is my last shot. 

If we could yell, “HELP!” we would. But would anyone throw us a rope?

“Hey, Boss, I’m over here.” 

If we’re lucky, we work around leaders who are willing to step forward when we’re in a pinch. They may be our immediate boss, someone higher up, an esteemed colleague, or a customer with clout.

We may get ourselves into situations like:

  • Being unable to handle a Q&A
  • Over-committing company resources
  • Irritating a customer
  • Making a faux pas with a bigwig
  • Overstepping our authority 

We don’t do these things on purpose. They are mistakes, oversights, and gaffs that we’ve gotten ourselves into but can’t get out of.

Our leaders are our hope. We need them to make things right again, so we can stay on the right track.

To help, our leaders can:

  • Insert themselves into the situation
  • Redirect discussion and facilitate agreement/collaboration
  • Defer actions and clarify expectations
  • Pull rank and impose direction
  • Take the fall for us (Ouch!) 

Good leaders are teachers with a kick! 

We get ourselves into fixes for lots of reasons: poor preparation, immaturity, impatience, and short-sightedness. The leader who rescues us shows compassion, empathy, understanding, and fairness. We deserve that the first time.

The leader who lets us squirm knows that until we truly “feel” the consequences of our goofs, we won’t grasp their importance and our need make changes.

Smart leaders have a tolerance for our missteps but not a penchant for them. When we learn, we’ll get points. When we don’t, we’ll feel it!

From squirming to rescue!   

1.) I was scheduled to meet with the COO along with my boss. I wasn’t feeling well that day and told my boss I felt a bit off.

At the meeting, I opened my mouth to speak and out come these sounds: “Tha thea, tha thea.” My boss looked at me, stunned.

He quickly interrupted whatever I was trying to say to give me a moment to regroup.  He turned the conversation back to me. I said: “Tha thea, tha thea.” I sounded like the cartoon character, Porky Pig, whose famously stuttered line was: “That’s all, folks!” (Right then, his words seemed to summarize my career!)

My boss jumped in again. The COO swallowed a laugh. Miraculously, I recovered.

On the way back to the office, my boss said to me, “What the hell happened to you in there!” What happened was that he rescued me!

2.) Rachel, a very smart, spunky woman, ran the field service dispatching department for me. It was a very tough job and she was its first woman supervisor.

I attended her initial storm debriefing meeting, involving the line supervisors from the field, Rachel, and her staff. There were lots of pent up issues in the room. Rachel focused on defending her people while the rest were gunning for her.

She wasn’t a great listener. The meeting rose to a higher and higher pitch. She lacked the experience to hold her own on her own. I let her squirm just enough to realize the situation but not enough to undermine her credibility with her staff.

Then I started to participate in the dialogue, got agreement for changes on both sides, and committed to ongoing improvement. Rachel got the picture.

Step up! 

Letting someone get skewered at work or anywhere else when they are giving it their best shot is heartless. No one is made better when that happens.

Being business fit includes taking the lead whether you have the position authority or not. When you know how to bail someone out of a tight spot, just do it. The loyalty and learning that result are worth your effort!

Do you have an experience where you were rescued or left squirming? How did it work out? What did you learn?