Managing Attitudes

Attitudes can make the difference between retention versus turnover. Learn about managing attitudes.


Attitude affects productivity, quality, and morale. It also has a huge impact on collegiality, cooperation, and cohesion. It can be the difference between employees embracing or rejecting development opportunities. Attitudes can make the difference between retention versus turnover. Good attitudes drive positive results. Bad attitudes put drag on results.

So why do most managers avoid dealing with bad attitudes? “Attitude” is hard to talk about for three basic reasons:

  1. It seems so personal, like “none of your business.”
  2. It seems intrinsic to the person, so probably impossible to change. That’s why people say things like, “That’s just who he is.”
  3. It seems intangible, so it is hard to describe in clear terms. You might think, “She is doing her job, after all. Who is to say she must always do it with a smile?”

That’s why most managers mostly avoid giving employees negative feedback about their attitude unless the behavior is truly egregious. You (or a colleague) might offer a periodic reproach to those with “bad attitudes,” usually delivered lightly and in passing, which means the behavior is barely pushed below the surface. When it recurs, it might escape your notice. Or it might just slide by again, or it might be reproached again, maybe lightly and in passing, or greeted by coworkers with the routine murmurs of disapproval. Unless it pops up just one too many times, or at the wrong time, or with the wrong person, or it comes out just a little too much or a little too loud. Then perhaps there is an outburst or an exchange of words or worse.

Whenever you get the guts to address the matter—-even if it seems like a time when cooler heads might prevail—- it can be very hard to find the right words. Trying to describe an employee’s attitude—-especially when that person is not at his/her best—- is likely to provoke an emotional response from the employee. The employee may well feel attacked.

That’s why most managers tend second guess themselves on issues like this, thinking: “Maybe this issue is too personal. Is it even something that this person can change?” No wonder you avoid dealing with employee attitude problems.

Feelings are on the inside; attitude is on the outside.

I use the term “attitude” to zero in on that very special category of the employee performance problem that matters so much but seems hard for many managers to get their arms around. As long as you think of attitude as a personal, internal matter, it is going to remain intangible, and you will remain out of your depth. Plus, whatever your employees might be “feeling inside” is indeed none of your business. Stop focusing on the inside/personal stuff. Focus on the outside.

Observable behavior can be seen, heard, and felt. When we talk about attitude, it’s not about who the person is; it’s about how a person behaves. No matter how intrinsic the source may be, only the external behavior can be and must be managed. On the outside, attitude is all about communication practices: Words, format, tone, and gestures.

Don’t let attitude be a personal issue. Instead, make it 100% 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 external behaviors. It’s not about what the employee feels deep inside—the source of the attitude issues—but rather what the employee expresses 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. Make it 100% 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.”

Yes, you can require great attitudes at work.

Great attitude behaviors should be—-at a bare minimum—- treated as one among many very important basic performance requirements. Some organizations make significant attitude behaviors a centerpiece of their entire workplace culture. It’s all about professionalizing workplace interactions for greater collegiality and cooperation. It has a huge impact because it takes the “attitude” issue out of the shadows and puts it squarely into the day-to-day conversation about performance. It is a regular reminder to people to keep “smiling on the outside,” if you will, regardless of what is going on “deep inside.”

Even people with overall great attitudes have their moments. So the broad performance standards and regular reminders in one-on-ones make a difference, even for them. Of course, some people have more trouble maintaining a positive attitude than others. You don’t need to write those people off. But you can’t tolerate anything less than a great attitude.

Communication practices are habits. Habits can be changed, but it isn’t easy. The only way to get from a suboptimal habit to a much better habit is the disciplined practice of a proven technique consistently over time. The proven technique functions as a replacement behavior. At first, it is very hard. But it gets easier and easier over time. And eventually, the best practice becomes a new and much better habit.

Bruce Tulgan
Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author and CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done” ( Harvard Business Review Press) is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers. Follow Tulgan on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: