Attitude ConceptWhat about that person on your team who has an “attitude problem?” The person who frustrates you because he takes an attitude of “not my job” or she has an attitude that “the company should…” Even if you give feedback on the attitude, no change occurs.

The Problem with Attitude

Basically, you are having difficulty managing someone’s attitude for two reasons:

  1. Attitude is invisible. You cannot find attitude with any of your five senses.
  2. Attitude is “wiring.” And, our personal wiring is illusive and sticky.

If indeed you have correctly assessed the problem as someone’s underlying attitude, you will rarely get traction by going head-on into a conversation about his (bad) attitude.

What is Attitude?

The dictionary defines attitude as:

  • A manner, disposition, feeling, position, etc. with regard to a person or thing.
  • A tendency or orientation (especially of the mind).
  • A position or posture of the body expressive of an action, emotion, etc.

When I boil that down, I define attitude as a strong pattern of thinking that influences personal action. We infer an attitude based on the actions we see and hear. A tone of voice. A repetitive response. A facial expression or body movement that accompanies the message.

Attitudes are assigned as positive or negative based on our personal history with people “like her” or situations “like that.” As a boss or colleague you can reinforce a perceived positive attitude or work to illuminate a negative one.

Five Steps to Dealing with a “Problematic” Attitude

Attitudes are not bad, but they can create problematic performance at work. If you focus on validating and discussing attitude as the problem, you will likely have little success. So, my first recommendation is stop thinking and talking about attitude. Take these five steps to consider your observations and lay out a plan.

  1. Put your judgment of the person aside. If, indeed, you have been right about the person having a solid pattern of thinking that hurts his  performance, then you can’t talk him out of it. Unfortunately, by the time you are thinking it’s an attitude problem, you are probably frustrated or even angry. So, slow down and don’t make it about that person being difficult. Consider your job to be unraveling the actual performance.
  2. Get curious. Lay out what you have observed, exactly how the situation occurs. Take at least three scenarios. What did he do or say; then, what did you do or say; and on.
  3. Pose alternative possible thinking that could create the same set of actions. I am completely confident that you could  imagine three of four different attitudes for someone who habitually delivers exactly what is asked and no more. Is it an attitude of “This is a job, not a career,” or “This place is a pressure-cooker, why should I do more?” Or, is it possible the person thinks “I should do the job I’m asked to do.” That last one might be a positive one for the person, but still problematic if you expect people to stretch what they deliver.
  4. Capture the impact or consequences of the series of actions. As you consider the three scenarios, identify the outcomes for results, relationships, career, etc.
  5. Consider what you know about the person. Now, think about the person. Use what you know about what he cares about and how that relates to the impact of his actions.

Sounds so logical…where did all the emotion go? Hopefully, through the process above , you will become more interested in the data you have (or don’t have yet) and more detached from trying to “make” the person change. With that detachment, you can think through how to approach the person.

The Best Approach

OK, you know that you shouldn’t approach people in the same way. Number five above pushes you to use what you know about each person cares about. But, if you want a simple all-purpose place to start the conversation, try this:

  • Tell the person that you need their help in thinking through an area for performance improvement.
  • Lay out what you observe in your three situations (diagramming, not talking).
  • Ask the person to add his or her observations–more data for you.
  • Then ask (drumroll): How are you thinking when you….?

You can even say: “Sometimes people think…” Just don’t speak as if you have the knowledge of what’s going on for that person. I promise you will not get the person to tell you “I’m just trying to do the least work I can everyday.” or “The Company should do more for me.”

Frankly, it doesn’t matter what he  or she says, because the magic is in the observations and your opportunity to show or share your expectations with a focus on the pattern you see. With a sticky way of thinking, the consequences may be what opens the door to change.

This week, try the five-step process above to illuminate an approach for your person with attitude.