Every workplace has negative people who erode morale. They’re not always easy to pick out of a crowd, but they can do an amazing amount of damage over time.
Most of the time, these folks don’t make the big mistakes that call attention to themselves. They’re frequently pretty good at their jobs, so they’re not called on the carpet too often.
But like a virus running in the background of a computer program, their acidic personalities eat away at the goals – and ultimately the bottom line – of the company week after week, year after year.
Who are these people? They’re the employees who:
- continually find things to complain about and exaggerate the seriousness of co-workers’ mistakes
- spread gossip and start rumors that pit employees against each other
- talk behind co-workers’ backs, and
- undermine supervisors’ authority with a never-ending flow of criticism that stays under-the-radar so it’s rarely recognized and corrected.
It’s been said the only way to fix a bad attitude is through psychotherapy, religion or brain surgery. But it’s a rare manager who is a shrink, a minister and a neurosurgeon.
Still, every manager needs a strategy to deal with this constant drag on employee attitudes.
The stakes are too high to just let things slide.
Looking for answers – 4 key questions
So what’s to be done? The experts say managers should move away from the vague “bad attitude” discussion to the hard facts of employee behavior.
The key questions:
- What’s the impact of the employee’s behavior?
- How do the person’s actions differ from the standards set for overall employee behavior?
- What’s the effect of this individual’s behavior on the people who work with him/her?
- If this person acted according to our accepted standards, could it make a difference in morale and productivity?
Managers should identify the actions of negative people – and make it clear those actions will no longer be tolerated.
An example: A Midwestern company established a “no jerk” policy. It included the statement:
Each employee will demonstrate professional behavior that supports team efforts and enhances team behavior, performance and productivity.
(NOTE: Everyone has one or more employees with an acidic attitude that errodes morale and has a toxic effect on work culture. Get "Stopping Difficult People From Draining the Life Out of Your Organization" and learn proven, concrete steps you can take to stop these troublemakers from wreaking havoc on workplace culture and wearing down co-workers.)
Handling tough conversations with acidic employees
Establishing policy is a solid first step; it creates a good framework.
But managers need practical advice that gets results day to day on the front lines.
Managers need one-on-one coaching sessions to cover these points:
- Acknowledge the awkwardness. Managers can let employees know they’re providing feedback that’s difficult to discuss. It’s only human to feel that way.
- Keep it results-oriented. A phrase like “I’m bringing this up because it’s important you address this issue to be successful in your job” is helpful.
- Accentuate the positive. It’s a good idea to highlight the good things that are likely to happen when the person changes the disruptive behavior. On the other hand, if the person remains defiant, stressing the negative outcome if the person’s attitude doesn’t change can be effective, too.
It’s human nature to want to delay having a tough conversation with an employee with a bad attitude. But that only makes things worse.
And since it’s going to be a tough conversation, it’s recommended that supervisors prepare for the discussion.
Suggestions for handling the confrontation:
- Be specific about what you want. It’s a mistake to use general terms in a discussion about a specific behavior problem. For example, a manager says “I don’t like your attitude. I want you to change it.” That’s pretty safe, but it could mean anything.
Instead, the manager should say “It’s not helpful the way you talk about our customers behind their backs. It poisons the attitude of the others in customer service. From now on, if you can’t say something supportive of a customer, please don’t say anything at all.”Managers should try to gather specific examples of negative things the employee has said in the past, and use those in the discussion for clarity.
- Let people rant … a little. Once a manager has gotten through discussing the specific behaviors, it’s likely the other person is going to feel the need to blow off steam and maybe even mount a defense. To avoiding having people feel like they are on the witness stand, let them rant a bit. It’ll help them feel like they are being heard – because they are. Then steer the conversation back to the results you want.
- Try to use “we.” Work to get across the notion that the issue is a problem for everyone concerned. A manager can start by saying “We have a problem” or “We need to change.”This helps the person realize the behavior is important, without finger-pointing.
- Avoid overusing “you.” Putting all the responsibility on the employee is a conversational black hole that’s impossible to escape. The constant use of the word you, as in “You have a bad attitude and everyone knows it” is an invitation for a fight. Instead, try “We need to talk about your attitude.” The point here is, while it is OK to use the word “you,” using it continually in a negative way kills the conversation.
- Avoid “however” and “but.” Some managers believe that if they lead with a compliment, it’s easier to wade into the problem. That conversation looks something like this: “You’ve done a pretty good job, but …” and then the manager lowers the boom.That often angers people and leaves them thinking, “Why can’t he ever just say something positive and leave it at that?”Consider substituting “and” for “but” and “however,” and the conversation is likely to go smoother, as in: “You’re doing a pretty good job and we need to talk about how to get you to show more respect for customers.”
- Don’t feel as if you have to fill the silence. In a tense situation a manager may be tempted to fill every gap in the conversation. Don’t. Stay silent when there’s a lull. Obligate the other person to fill in the silence. It’s surprising the amount of information a manager can get without ever asking a question … just by remaining silent.