Attitude Problems – 8 Steps for Handling Challenging Situations

Handling employees with attitude problems can be challenging. With some employees, the problem isn’t a matter of ability, it’s a matter of attitude. This can manifest itself in everything from quiet disobedience to outright insubordination, ultimately resulting in a toxic environment for everyone.

So, how should you respond?

By addressing the situation strictly as a behavioral problem, rather than becoming embroiled in a debate about the employee’s dysfunctional attitude, it’s not only easier to resolve, but also a better way to make a case for dismissal if it comes down to it.

How should you react when faced with poor-performing or disruptive employees?

Nobody likes confrontation and unfortunately, too many managers tend to overlook these behaviors rather than deal with them immediatelt, hoping the situation will resolve itself. Not only does this pertpetuate the behavior, but it is not fair to the other employees. Additionally, not only will your reputation suffer, but the organization’s integrity will suffer as well.

The result: problems worsen, morale deteriorates and productivity takes a major hit.

While dealing with volitile employees head-on is not recommended, dealing with issues as they occur and not waiting until there have been multiple incedents sends the message that the organization does not tolerate that type of behavior.

Here are some guidelines you may find helpful in diffusing these behaviors and protecting the organization:

  1. Start by documenting the behavior

Write down specific verbal and physical behaviors and actions that concern you, hurt team morale, damage productivity or reflect badly on the organization. Don’t forget to record nonverbal behaviors, such as clenching fists, rolling eyes,  and staring into space.

  1. Narrow the issue to the precise problem. Identify exactly what type of behavior the attitude has caused and what triggers it, if possible.  This list may help:
  • Carelessness
  • Complaining
  • Disruptive or explosive conduct
  • Inattention to work
  • Insensitivity to others
  • Insubordination
  • Laziness
  • Negative/cynical posture
  • Surly/inconsiderate/rude talk
  • Excessive socializing
  1. Record the frequency of such misconduct and how it affects work flow and colleagues’ performance.  This may come from personal observation as well as complaints from other empolyees
  2. List good business reasons why the behavior must end. Never make it sound like a personal attack-rather take the position that each team member’s contributions are valuable
  3. When meeting with the employee to discuss attitude problems, try to determine whether they have a reason for their behavior. Is it a grudge against you or against the company in general?
  4. Follow up with a description of the preferred behavior, such as cooperation, helpfulness and courteousness. Be honest and direct. Requiring an employee to bre  courteous and cooperative at work is a given.
  5. Give the employee the opportunity to speak. The person may be unaware of what he or she is doing or not realize how it impedes other people’s work. It may also turn out that the attitude problem is a symptom of a more serious problem that needs referral to the employee assistance program.

What’s the best approach?
Discovering the root cause of the problem is not always easy – especially if it is of a personal nature. For example:

  • Poor performance may be a result of lack of training, inability to perform the tasks,  outside distractions, or employee disengagement – understanding the root cause will help you determine the next steps
  • Avoid “management malpractice” – make sure you have all your facts and have verified them
  • Remain  objective – it’s too easy to lose your “cool”. If you feel you are about to lose control, take a short 5 min intermission, regain your composure, get a drink of water, then return to your meeting
  • Avoid making it personal – words like a “I”, “you”, “me” should be replaced with, “we”, “we as a team”, “our goals” etc. These are “inclusive” words that will help the employee feel they are part of the team and not someone looking in
  • Engage the employee in setting their own goals and help them outline their approach
  • Remember at all times that you are not only their boss, but their coach & their mentor — if you want them to get your projects done in the manner you want them done, work on promoting a healthy  mentoring environment
  • Discussing performance only during the performance appraisal is like dieting only on your birthday and wondering why you’re not losing weight! Reward small accomplishments along the way and have a brief  1:1 to catch up and see if they have any questions and monitor their progress. Schedule follow up meetings.

Keep in mind that engagement tactics don’t work the same way for every employee. Engagement is a long-term investment. Once you stop thinking about engagement as an expense and start thinking about it as an investment, you will realize that engagement programs help your employees become better, more committed workers and therefore more productive. It is never too late to create these types of programs.

Engagement has been shown to improve retention –engaged employees tend to stay with a company AND  they love what they do.

At the end of the day ask yourself some of these questions:

  • Does the employee add enough value to your organization to try and salvage them?
  • Are the underlying issues that fuels their challenging behavior something you and your company are prepared and willing to worth with in order to transform them?
  • Has the employee demonstrated a willingness to change and fall in line with the organization’s goals?

If you can’t get to the root of the problem, you will more than likely not be able to resolve the problem. Knowing when to relieve someone of their duties is just as important as taking the right steps to getting it done.


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