Employees with Bad AttitudeThursday, August 11th, 2011
Do you have in your workforce someone who is always miserable, always complaining about the weather, England’s performance, his or her relations and so on? Most organisations do have someone like that, and usually they are tolerated by viewing them as figures of fun. But their negativity can be draining on everyone and thus have an impact on employee contentment and overall productivity. Matters are more serious if the person complains about the organisation, its processes and products. So, can you do anything about it? The answer is “yes you can”, and indeed you must because bad attitude is a disease that can spread and do damage to the organisation and the people in it. In fact many employees will look to you to do something about the moaner and will consider you a weak manager if you fail to take appropriate action.
A first thought might be that your disciplinary procedure is the best way to deal with the problem, but really this is dealing with the symptom rather than the cause. Discipline may improve the behaviour to the point where it is just acceptable but not ideal, and there is a strong chance that it will slip again, simply because the bad attitude is just part of the person’s make-up. Also a general complaint is likely to make the person feel persecuted. He or she has these grievances about the world and you are merely adding to them. Your only way to a permanent solution therefore is to tackle the causes of the behaviour.
Wait until you yourself witness an example of the bad attitude, ideally one concerning work. Say, for example, that you overhear him say that the material he has to work with is rubbish. Do not react immediately but rather think what you intend to say, then bring the employee into a private office and tell him how you feel about his comment. Ask him to be specific about what he means. Insist that, if the material is indeed sub-standard, you will take up the matter with the buyer or specifier concerned. If he has a valid comment, do just that, but otherwise bring him to the point where he has no sound evidence. If he has complained that he is treated badly, tell him that you feel hurt by that as you try to treat everyone fairly, so please will he explain how you have upset him. Again, if he has a valid complaint, deal with it, but otherwise let him see that he is commenting about you unjustly. If he has displayed a negative attitude in a meeting, point out as appropriate that he criticised and demeaned colleagues without offering anything positive himself. Explain that some people in the meeting may have made unsound suggestions, but these should be examined, adjusted and built upon rather than be rejected as the ideas of morons, because that is how he seems to view his colleagues. In essence, take a complaint he has made, discuss it with him respectfully, examine its logic, act upon anything that is valid but otherwise bring him to recognise that his comment was completely unjustified.
That is phase one. The next phase requires you to examine why he makes unjustified comments. Remain perfectly logical and objective yourself, but try to elicit from the man the facts affecting him and the associated feelings. This requires you to concentrate on listening. Do not lecture, do not joke, do not give advice. Instead ask simple but obvious questions such as “Why do you complain about the materials?”, or “Why do you not suggest ideas in meetings?” or “Why does the English team’s poor performance bother you so much that you are unhappy at work?” In fact a real killer question is “Why are you so unhappy at work?”.
Now, three things may emerge from this exercise. First, there may be a work issue that you can do something about. That may be a genuine problem with the material, so you can make the specifier aware that it is more difficult to work than he or she thought. Or maybe you can give advice. If the man is unhappy about his present job, suggest that he apply for something he would like to do, if necessary suggesting how he prepare for the interview. Second, there may be a problem in his domestic life. People frequently are beset with domestic problems such as overdraft, difficult relatives, unreliable car that they feel unable to resolve, therefore they express their feelings at work in the form of bad attitude. See if you can not only identify these issues but help the employee do something about them. Suggest he write a letter to the bank explaining his situation, point him towards a counselling service to explore his problems with relatives, and put him in touch with a colleague who may be able to advise or even help him with his car difficulties. Third, you may discover that he has problems that you can do nothing about in a practical sense. He will know this. But what you can do most usefully is just listen to what he has to say and show understanding. Not sympathy necessarily because that can come across as quite hollow. Just show understanding. Listen, nod, don’t give advice and, most important, ask him how he feels. Or suggest how he may be feeling by saying something like “That would make me feel really angry”. Try to put yourself in the man’s position, think how you would feel and comment accordingly. This demonstration of understanding is powerful, something you may not realise until you try it. The process takes time and may sound a bit weepy, but good managers utilise it regularly.
At the end of this exercise you may fail and the employee may continue to demonstrate bad attitude, in which case you will need to move towards the early stages of your disciplinary procedure. If you do, be sure to table specific examples of his or her bad attitude rather than generalities. But the chances are you will succeed in curing this employee by making him or her feel valued. And in so doing you will produce a more harmonious workforce.