Bookmark and Share

Dealing with a Negative Attitude

By Mary Lloyd

When your best performer starts coming in with a chip on her shoulder, pay attention. Negative attitudes in the work place are highly contagious. The sooner you get to the bottom of what's not working, the faster you get the whole team back on track.

We all have "bad days." But when someone comes in sour regularly, it's not a matter of what didn't go right at the breakfast table. Sometimes, even the best of employees gets off in the weeds in terms of attitude. And since becoming a superstar usually takes time, this kind of problem can easily be with an older worker. But regardless of the age of the person in question, the strategy is pretty much the same: Address it now. Don't wait around for it to get better on its own.

Talk to the employee. Discussing the situation is the first step, but make it a problem solving session rather than a mandate to "clean up your act." And do it one-on-one. Point to specifics. Saying something like: "Your comment to Jenny in the planning meeting yesterday was pretty caustic. You're usually a pretty easy going personality. What's going on?" works better than "Everybody is tired of you yelling at them."

Use that response as a starting place for the real problem solving. An employee caught in a negative thinking spiral will most likely blame whoever they took issue with. "What Jenny said was so stupid I couldn't help it." Letting the person get off with that kind of explanation is just going to make it worse. What's the deeper issue?

Look for root causes of the negativity. True, some people are just negative as personalities. Usually they don't get hired. So why has someone who's been doing the job well suddenly slamming other people whose goodwill you need? Ask what's going on and then shut up and listen. Letting the person talk about the situation will give you better information than firing questions at him or her. Watch for themes in what the employee points to. A word of caution: Don't buy in on "It's not my fault." A negative attitude is a personal choice-whether you are dealing with a normal Monday morning at work or cleaning up after a tornado.

Make the employee aware of the impact of the attitude. Good employees see themselves as good employees. They are proud of their work and need to believe the company is as well. Making them aware of how the negativity is impairing their effectiveness can motivate positive change all by itself.

Figure out what needs to change to change the attitude. Attitudes are not random. Something is drawing the employee into that whirlpool. If it's a legitimate problem on the job, brainstorm ways to improve the situation. If other parts of the company are involved, get their side of the story (by asking uncharged questions and letting them talk as well). If the employee believes what he's being expected to do-or is not being allowed to do-is unfair, explore that. This kind of problem solving is more like peeling an onion than digging for gold. Every layer of the puzzle is part of solving it well.

Set limits. Give the employee clear direction about what is and isn't acceptable. Explain why those limits are necessary. Provide a better alternative. (e.g. "When someone in the department leans on Billing, all of our orders get delayed. If you have a problem with Billing, bring it to me.")

Expect a positive change. Let the employee know that you value them as part of the team. (Failing to regularly acknowledge the contribution each employee is making individually can, of itself, engender negative attitudes.) Talk about what he or she does well and how much you need their best performance. Not thinking a lot of negative thoughts when they walk in the door makes the work more satisfying for them, too.

Be careful with personal problems. Every boss/employee relationship is different and how much the person opens up with you about what's going on personally will be a function of that. But even if you consider the person a good friend, telling them how to solve personal problems is dangerous ground. That's not part of your role, and it can backfire big time. Encourage the person to seek wise counsel, be it via the company employee assistance program, a trusted friend, older relative, spiritual advisor, or relevant support group.

We all go through rough patches and a good boss cuts people some slack in those circumstances. That's different than tolerating a negative attitude. When a negative attitude pops up, consider it crabgrass and get on with eradicating it.