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The Truth About Employee Attitude

If managers were to categorize their disciplinary problems, they’d probably say that their overstuffed bucket is the one marked “attitude.” We’re told that attitude is the indispensable quality, and maybe that’s true; but when dealing with employee problems, trying to address the problem by discussing an employee’s attitude is will all but guarantee failure. That’s because the simple fact is, you can only manage behavior. You can’t manage an attitude.

Sure, the right attitude is important; it’s just that there’s only one attitude you can change, and that’s your own. How do you change your teenage son’s attitude about the blast site you used to call his bedroom? If you have a meaningful, effective answer for that, your silence is a disservice to much of humanity. Much as we could wish for your success (especially those of us who are raising boys), all that we as parents and leaders can do is create the conditions by which others choose to commit their discretionary effort. That’s a fancy way of saying you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Confronting an employee about his or her attitude is not only pointless, it’s counterproductive. If you start your meeting with “Bob, I’ve really got a problem with your attitude lately,” you’ve put Bob on the defensive, because you’re attacking him as a person. Worse, your attack is about what’s in Bob’s head, which you can’t know for sure and which probably isn’t what your customer is paying for. If instead, you start with “Bob, I’m concerned that you’ve been late three times in the past two weeks alone,” you’re talking about what you can know for sure – how Bob behaves, and the results he produces or doesn’t produce. Employees can argue what is or isn’t in their heads, and we can’t affirm or deny any of it. But when we discuss how employees behave, they can’t argue what we see or don’t see.

If you’re still not convinced, ask yourself: What makes me say that an employee has an attitude problem? Inescapably, your answer is going to be because of what behaviors the employee does or doesn’t demonstrate.

Do you only give raises to the happy people? Do your job postings include a requirement of “must be happy?” Does a good attitude really trump an employee’s inability to grow sales, cut costs, or solve problems? No, no, and no. For that matter, you’re not even paying your employees to like you.

In fact, if you’re honest with yourself, I’ll bet you don’t have a great attitude about everything in your own business. Does that disqualify you as a leader? Of course not; like all mature, successful people, you suck it up and do your best, just like everyone else around you, whether you’re aware of it or not.

So when you’re preparing a disciplinary discussion with an employee, remember: If you talk about an employee’s performance as one of attitude, you’ll never win. But if you present the problem as being about the employee’s behavior, you can’t lose.


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