Management Challenge #14: When an Employee Needs an Attitude Adjustment

Excerpt from “The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems” (Jossey-Bass, the Wiley imprint in San Francisco, September 2014).

When an employee starts seeming like someone with a bad attitude, you need to start talking about that in your regular one-on-one dialogue with that person. Zero in on the negative behaviors, one at a time:

  1. Describe the specific words, format, tone and gestures. Remember Beth: “You fold your arms; roll your eyes; and say, ‘No.’”
  2. Connect the behavior with tangible work outcomes: “This makes other people, including me, reluctant to approach you even when they need something from you. Also, when you manifest disdain for someone, that person has an automatic incentive to diminish the weight of your opinion.”
  3. Make reference to the performance requirement or best practice from which the negative behavior deviates: “We all need to be available and welcoming to each other in order to keep each other informed, cooperate with each other, and meet each other’s business needs.”
  4. Define the replacement behavior that you will use as a specific performance expectation against which to measure the individual’s improvement. Discuss some possible replacement behaviors and then decide on one: Like Beth’s replacement behavior of smiling wide; opening her arms wide; and saying, ‘Yes. Tell me more about that.’
  5. Continue to follow up in your ongoing one-on-ones. Pay attention. Monitor, measure, and document as best you can. Ask the individual to self-monitor and report to you on progress on a regular basis. Reward success. Do not accept failure.

It is no doubt true that every case is different, especially if one were to really try to understand the inner feelings at the source. The good news is that the inner feelings of each employee are none of your business. Using the outside lens of “communication practices,” we’ve identified in our research the six most common types of individual attitude problems—aberrant communication habits—that have a negative impact in the workplace. They are:

1. Porcupines

Porcupines want to be left alone with a special vengeance. Their words, tone, and gestures all say: “Get away from me!” Your entreaties will be greeted, at best, with a cold, curt response meant to be uninviting of further interaction. Or you might well be received with a stinging word, tone, or gesture. After a few times, you are meant to learn to keep your distance.

2. Entanglers

The opposite of the “porcupine” is what I call an “entangler.” Entanglers want everybody else to be involved in their issues, no matter how mundane or idiosyncratic those issues may be. As much as porcupines do not want attention, entanglers want to be noticed, observed, listened to, and engaged. It’s as if they are lonely and want you to keep them company while they do whatever it is they do. It looks a lot like narcissism if you take it apart—whatever it is that’s going on for the entangler at any given point, the entangler just wants you to share in (or be the audience for) that experience.

3. Debaters

If entanglers are into communication that goes nowhere in particular, debaters always speak as if they have an agenda. Often it’s the other side of whatever is being said. But it’s not always the “devil’s advocate” point of view. Sometimes debaters have a specific interest or constituency whose perspective they seek to represent, seemingly in every conversation at virtually every turn. In other cases, it might be a different issue every day. But it’s always something. The debater always has an argument to make.

4. Complainers and

5. Blamers

I treat complainers and blamers together because they are such close cousins. The most important thing the characters have in common is that each points responsibility for problems away from himself. Often, they work as a sort of tag team: The complainer points out something negative, and the blamer jumps in and points a finger at somebody—internal or external.

6. Stink bomb throwers

Everybody gets angry sometimes. Some are more apt to show discontent than others. Some people go as far as making sarcastic (or worse) remarks, cursing under their breath (or aloud), or even making a loud gesture such as slamming a door (or their hands down on a table). This sort of “communication” is what I refer to as a “stink bomb.” It’s basically just a tantrum. Like the blamers and complainers, the stink bomb throwers are aware of a problem—they are feeling some pain. The thing about the “stink bomb throwers” is that they are usually angry.

OK, those are the six types of bad attitudes, but what is a manager to do?

Just like any other aspect of performance, managing attitude is just a matter of applying the fundamentals to this difficult, complex, and all too common challenge. You need to define it and spell it out as a set of expectations, and then monitor, measure, and document it—require it, recognize, and reward it—like any other aspect of performance.

Here’s what you need to do:

  • Don’t let attitude be a personal issue. Instead, make it 100 percent business. Make great attitude an explicit and regularly discussed performance requirement for everyone. Make it all about the work.
  • Never try to change an employee’s internal state; only speak to the external behaviors. It’s not about what the employee is feeling deep inside—the source of the attitude issues—but rather what the employee is expressing on the outside. External behavior is something an employee can learn to perform, and it is something you can require.
  • Refuse to allow attitude—great, good, or bad—to remain vague in any way. Make it 100 percent clear. Define the behaviors of great attitude: words, tone, and gestures. Spell it out. Break it down. Monitor, measure, and document it every step of the way. Talk about it. Hold people accountable. Reward the “doers.” Remove the “won’t-ers.”

Excerpt from “The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems” released by Jossey-Bass, the Wiley imprint in San Francisco (September 2014; $23.95). For more information, visit

Based in New Haven, CT, Bruce Tulgan is a leading expert on young people in the workplace. He is an advisor to business leaders all over the world, the author or coauthor of numerous books, including the classic, “Managing Generation X” (1995); best-seller “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” (2007); “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy’ (2009); and “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014). Since founding management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. Follow him on twitter @brucetulgan. He can be reached at


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