Managing an Attitude Problem

At some point in a Leader’s life they will need to manage someone with an Attitude Problem. This is can be a difficult and challenging process and many Leaders feel unskilled in how to manage this situation.

What is an Attitude Problem?

An “Attitude Problem” is a vague description often associated with someone who is negative, or unmotivated. It can be the team member who criticises your motivational talk, sends the team off track, derails the goals of the day, finds fault in every new idea, or is generally disengaged. This individual can be off-putting, disruptive and annoying. And it is the Leaders job to manage this person. So how do you do it?

Can’t I just ignore them?

Ignoring is sometimes a reasonable first step to see if the behaviour is going to change by itself. In a team of highly motivated and engaged individuals it can be difficult for the Attitude Problem to maintain their disengaged ways. But ignoring should only be a very short term strategy. If left unaddressed the Attitude Problem’s behaviour will continue, potentially get worse, and will start to have an impact on the rest of the team (attitude problems can be very contagious). Also be mindful that someone who is very negative or disengaged is unlikely to be working to their best potential (and probably underperforming). So the Attitude Problem will need to be addressed directly.

Should I send them to training?

This is frequently used strategy for dealing with difficult people. They are often “sent” on courses focused on motivation, resilience, managing conflict and other such topics. This is an indirect form of addressing a problem. Sending someone to training without clear goals/expectations will rarely result in change. Another strategy often used (with low results) is relocation i.e. sending them to another team. This strategy is also known as handballing. It alleviates the Leader’s problem but won’t change the situation (the individual will continue to be an attitude problem will likely reappear in your team in a few years’ time).

How Leaders can deal with an Attitude Problem.

Connect; Concern Conversation; Clarity of Inappropriate behaviours; Clarity of Expectations; Shape and Enable Growth; Positive Focus; Be Realistic

  1. Connect: Try to build a relationship with the Attitude Problem. Often these people are difficult to like and leaders often inadvertently avoid dealing with them. Get to know them. Find out what interests them. Spend time with them. They will be very guarded so it may take time. Building a relationship with them will help with any further conversations.
  2. Concern conversation. This is the conversation where you clearly articulate your concern with the individual about their behaviour. However, starting with “Jeremy, I want to talk to you about your attitude problem” will not get you very far. Instead, focus on their behaviour and the impact it is having on you and the team e.g. “Jeremy, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this but in team meetings you speak very negatively about my and other people’s ideas. I’m concerned because it brings down the tone of the meeting”. Another example, “Andrew, I wanted to talk to you about your work. I may be wrong, but you don’t seem very engaged or motivated at the moment. You’ve really been quite negative about the new project. Where are you at with all that?” In this conversation the Leader is clearly articulating the behaviour that is problematic, and the impact. It is important when articulating your concerns to start softly with a curious/interested approach to minimise eliciting a defensive response. This demonstrates that you are not making judgements about their character, just talking about their behaviour which is problematic. Additionally, the Leader needs to talk about the impact their behaviour may be having on their work, and on the team around them. “Jo, I know you have been involved in many projects like this and I’m wondering if it’s a bit boring for you. But mostly I’m really concerned about the impact your negative tone/approach is having on the rest of the team. I really need you to set an example for the newer members. What’s going on for you?” The goal is to get the individual to a) recognise and reflect on their behaviour on others; b) communicate your concerns about it (so they have clarity) and c) communicate that it needs to change. Some people have little to no awareness of how they come across to others and drawing attention to it may be enough to cause a change. For others, this will be well entrenched behaviour that will require an ongoing, more direct approach.
  3. Clarity of inappropriate behaviour. Provide clarity about the behaviours that are inappropriate, unwanted or detrimental. Or in other words, be very clear about what you want them to stop doing and what you want them to start doing. “Penny, I’ve noticed in the weekly meeting you regularly criticise me and other peoples’ ideas. The purpose of the weekly meeting is to get ideas on the table. What I want you to do is listen to the ideas without comment, until we get to the end of the meeting when everyone is adding their thoughts about the ideas. I have noticed that when you jump in early with your criticisms it shuts down people’s opportunity to contribute”. In some cases you need to be more direct “Penny, I need you to stop negative commentary in the meetings”.
  4. Clarity of expectations. Provide clarity about what you want to see more of, or what they need to start doing. For example you could say: “Ken I want you to make a conscious effort to verbalise something positive in the next meeting. It can be about anything”. And there may be times when you need to say something quite direct: “Lisa, you have clearly articulated to me that you don’t think this approach is the best. I appreciate your opinion. However the decision has been made and this is the approach that we are taking on. I need you to get on board with it. How can I support you to do that?”
  5. Enable growth. Look for steps toward improvement and acknowledge or reinforce steps in the right direction (don’t wait for the perfect outcome). When dealing with someone with an Attitude Problem you want to pay attention to any slight improvements in tone, engagement, and behaviour; and reinforce it. “That’s a really good point Bill. Thanks for raising that”. There still may be a long way to go, but the individual is getting encouragement to continue their new approach. It is hard to change, and an Attitude Problem often develops over many years of repetition i.e. it becomes a habit. We need give more attention to the behaviour we want. That way it is more likely to occur.
  6. Positive focus. Help the Attitude Problem to develop a more positive focus. We know that when an individual has a negative mindset they will notice more negative things. We also know that when someone focuses on negative things, they start to feel negative. A leader can help an Attitude Problem by getting them to articulate and focus on more positive things, e.g. what they like about their work (or even what is just OK about their work), what they are looking forward to, their goals, priorities and so on. The aim is to support the individual to shift their focus.
  7. Have realistic expectations. Aim for small gains rather than a massive overhaul. We have to accept that not everyone is going to operate in the perfect way that we want. Aim for small improvements. The individual may continue to be negative, but they may do it less publically, or less often. This is an improvement and will have low on effects in the team.

Of course if it is the Leader themselves with the Attitude Problem, then they need to take responsibility for their own behaviour and feelings, and be aware of how that will impact their work and the work of their team. Discussing this with a trusted colleague, mentor, coach or counsellor will be valuable in refocusing on their sense of purpose and re-engage with their work.

About the author

Kath Polglase is a registered psychologist with over 20 years’ experience working in the corporate arena as a psychologist, manager, trainer and executive coach.  Kath’s diverse experience includes training and facilitation, learning and development, change management, building team effectiveness and conflict management. In all her work, Kath applies her psychological knowledge and experience to support and develop individuals and teams in improving performance, communication and relationships. Kath has worked effectively in large organisations and small teams across a variety of industries.

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