Coaching an attitude problem

Gale Mote/Tree Full of Owls

One of the most frequent requests I receive from managers is how to effectively coach employees with attitude problems. It seems so subjective and hard to quantify. After all, it’s not like being tardy for work – measurable dates and times with specific expectations. People are different. Different strokes for different folks, right? Isn’t it unreasonable to expect that a person can get along with everyone?

Before you confront the employee, it is important to revisit the team’s core values and think about the behaviors you desire to see most – treating one another with respect, responding not reacting to what others say and do. Believing the best and expecting the best from the people you work with rather than jumping to negative conclusions. Trust requires loyalty and demonstrating the core value “tell me first.” If I step on your toes, I should be the first person you talk to – not our boss, not our co-workers and certainly not our customers. Perhaps a core value is showing personal accountability by being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Do not enter into a coaching conversation without a very clear picture of the behaviors you expect and need to see from the employee that demonstrate a positive attitude.

The first step in coaching an attitude problem is to define the specific behaviors being observed that make you and others believe the employee has an attitude problem. Examples might include being rude and impatient with customers, engaging in negative gossip, spreading rumors to “stir the pot” and excessively whining and complaining about the work, the department and their colleagues. Attitude is no longer subjective when you tie it to specific, observable behaviors.

The process for coaching an attitude problem is the same as coaching any employee whose behavior is negatively impacting performance, scaring away customers and destroying teamwork. The key is to tackle the issue sooner than later. Be prepared with specific examples and anticipate any side tracks including denial, blame and counter-attack.

The coaching conversation includes five simple steps, and you cannot skip any of them: state what you observed, wait for a response (no matter how long it takes), remind the employee of the goal and/or expected behavior, ask her for a specific solution and agree together on what will be different going forward.

As an example, let’s say that Mary Sue has been very vocal in team meetings about the lack of effort from second-shift employees, complaining about their work ethic and unwillingness to work extra hours. Her words have created a rift between the two groups. Mary Sue has not spoken directly with any of the second-shift employees.

Let’s start with confronting Mary Sue about her negative attitude towards her co-workers on second shift. First, do it in private and be sure you check your own attitude. Your goal is to be helpful, not hurtful. Use an “I” statement and get to the point – state what you have observed, not what you think or feel. “Mary Sue, I notice in our team meetings you have been critical of second-shift employees stating they are ‘slackers’ and unwilling to work extra hours.” It is important not to say, “Mary Sue, you have a lousy attitude toward second shift.” This is too vague and attacks the person, not the problem.

Next, wait for a response and watch for side tracks. “So what? It’s true. When was the last time you saw a second-shift employee working the weekend overtime?” While her statement may be true, second-shift employees working overtime is not the issue. You are concerned with her attitude toward her colleagues and how she communicates those feelings.

Remind her of the goal and the positive team behaviors expected every day. “I need you to work collaboratively with your colleagues on second shift. I need you to assume the best of them and do the best for them. If you have an issue with your team members, I expect you to speak with them directly not complain about them in front of others.”

Ask for a specific solution. “Starting today, what are you going to do differently to communicate and cooperate effectively with your co-workers on second shift?” Wait for a specific response. It is imperative that the solution come from the employee, not you as their coach. She needs to own the solution.

“Well, I don’t think it’s my problem. They just need to get their act together and start working as hard as the rest of us.”

“Mary Sue – do you agree we have a core value of being loyal, bringing our issues and concerns directly to one another?”


“When you complain about your co-workers without confronting them, aren’t you violating this core value?”

“Well, I guess so.”

“So what are you going to do differently, starting now, to communicate openly with your colleagues on second shift?”

“OK. I’ll meet with the team leader on second shift to share what I’ve observed and see if we can’t find a solution to help improve their productivity and balance the overtime. Will that work?”

“Great – when do you plan to meet with Mark, the team leader on nights?”

“I’ll set up a meeting this week.”

“Awesome. I’ll follow up with you on Friday to see how it went. If you need anything from me, I’m happy to help. Thank you for taking ownership.”

When Mary Sue proactively engages her colleagues on second shift, you need to recognize those actions. What gets recognized gets done.

By being descriptive of what you see, what you need to see going forward and working with the employee for a solution, you can begin to turn poor attitudes into positive performance.

Gale Mote is a trainer, organizational development catalyst and coach in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at [email protected].