Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I supervise a qualified employee with an attitude problem. She can easily do the work required of her and do it well—if she’s in the right mood.
I have no problem with her interactions with me, but am slowly uncovering a pattern of problematic and disrespectful interactions with her peers. She does not realize that her natural style of communication can often sound unclear, brusque, and even abrasive. Her behavior is damaging relationships, and negatively affecting office efficiency and production.
How do I get her to see that the way she interacts with coworkers is just as important as the way that she does her work? Can this type of person change?
Tired of the attitude
Yuck! Attitude problems are very difficult to deal with in the workplace because they directly affect working relationships, morale, and results. As a leader, it’s your job to confront them. But how?
You were right to recognize that there are two parts of every job: the results and the way people get results. Meeting expectations is important, but if an employee meets them in a way that insults and alienates the entire team, they hurt more than they help. As a leader you must set clear expectations around results and relationships, and then hold people accountable for both.
Having decided to address the attitude problem, let’s start with what you don’t do. Don’t say something like, “Sarah, I’m sick of your poor attitude. You need a check-up from the neck up to quit your stinkin’ thinkin’! And if you don’t fix your lousy attitude, you won’t be working here much longer. Got it?” Ouch. The problem here is that our feedback is generalized and vague; even if people wanted to act on our feedback, they wouldn’t have the first clue of what actually to do.
The most important thing you can do when preparing to have a feedback conversation with someone is to gather data. What specifically is the person doing that is troublesome? What specifically do you want him or her to stop doing and start doing? What is he or she doing that is disrespectful? Abrasive? Brusque? Unclear? How specifically does this behavior impact others? When he or she enacts this behavior, how do others respond? Why? Hopefully, you get the point. My advice is: don’t discuss attitude—a nebulous measure—rather, focus on behaviors.
In terms of approach, don’t try to address a hundred different situations at once. Instead, address the pattern of the person’s behavior and use individual situations as specific examples. To do this, begin the conversation by stating the facts. Factually describe the behavior you see and the way it affects others, then ask for the other person’s perspective.
For example, you might say, “Sarah, I’ve noticed a pattern I’d like to discuss with you. In the last four staff meetings you’ve strongly expressed your point of view, and then said, ‘You’d have to be an idiot not to support this direction.’ I’ve noticed that when you say that, others shut down and are reluctant to express their views, or some get argumentative and defensive. Either way, the team bogs down. Have you noticed what I am describing?”
If the other person gets defensive, and moves toward silence or violence, share your good intention to make it safe for him or her.
“Sarah, I’m not trying to get you in trouble or hurt your feelings. I really want to help you be more effective with the team and also help the team be more effective in the process.”
If she doesn’t think it’s important to change, identify the impact her behavior has on others. How do others respond to her when she engages in the behaviors you want her to change? Also let her know that the change you’re requesting is a requirement of her job.
We can solve attitude problems. People can change in dramatic ways. In order to accomplish this you must do the following: forget attitude, focus on specific behaviors, create clear expectations, link the other person’s behavior to the impact on others, be regular and consistent in your feedback, share your good intentions, and finally, acknowledge and praise the other person’s progress. In this way you can help employees contribute both to improved results and improved relationships.