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?