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As a union steward working in The Bronx, I’ve dealt with my fair share of belligerent team members. Some of which were violent, stand-offish and down right mean. It was difficult to get through to them.

One day I came into work, set up my work area and as I turned around to head to get my equipment there was this 6’4” hulking, sweaty, bald-headed dude peering angrily at me.

I said, “Can I help you?” Apparently someone drank his homemade juice from the break room refrigerator and he wanted to know what I was going to do about it before he has to find the person and “put hands on them.”

Coaching a team member about a negative attitude is one of the most uncomfortable things you can do; especially for evenly keeled leaders who don’t do well with candor.

I had this one moody guy on my team. There’s times when he would come into work with “one of his moods.”

He would grab his equipment and get to work. Any instructions management gave him would be met with an eye roll or he would turn his back to them. It was crazy.

There’s a few reasons why us leaders typically steer clear of this touchy situation:

  1. Many leaders don’t know how to coach: Coaching is a form of communication. It’s a communication skill made up of two other communication skills: teaching and advising. If you’re not versed on those two, which most leaders aren’t, then there’s a slim chance you’ll be able to coach anyone at all.
  2. It’s subjective: Many times I’ve approached my moody member about his moodiness and there was no clear way I could prove that he had a bad attitude. Where is the line drawn? How do we know if we crossed the line? After all, I wasn’t around when he and management would have an “altercation,” as management would make it seem. Mind you, management at the company I worked for had a bad reputation for lying and blowing things out of proportion so that made the situation even harder to articulate.
  3. It’s personal: No one is born as a blank slate. Everyone is born with the personality they will have for most of the duration of their lives. So when you have a member who has a “bad attitude,” unfortunately it just may be who they are. Confronting their attitude is not mutually exclusive from confronting who they are. To them, it’s one and the same. So this conversation can be like walking through a field scattered with landmines.
  4. You don’t prioritize it: Sometimes the member with the worst attitude has the best performance and contributes to the team in such a way that it makes them indispensable. They make you look good on paper so you look away. You don’t want to mess up your regular bonuses or other incentives you receive due to the amazing work your team does, so you try not to confront them. Secretly, they know this and it makes them perpetually worse. These are the people that can destroy your team from the inside out.

How Do You Coach An Employee With A Negative Attitude?

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When I had to have a talk with a particular team member with a negative attitude, I made sure I prepared myself in advance. I did what every shop steward is suppose to do before addressing any issue: gathered the facts and took notes.

In addition to the above, I made sure I took into consideration a few other things:

  • Is it me? I made 100% sure their attitude is nothing that I personally or professionally did. Was I too hard on them in the past? How do they relate to me as their leader? This is one of the most important first steps you could take as a leader, asking yourself if you’re responsible for this. After all, you are responsible for the whole team.
  • What’s going on with them outside of work? Maybe this person is naturally pessimistic by nature. Maybe they have issues going on at home. I recall a particular moment when management want to review a team members performance for the week as well as his negative attitude. Naturally, I had to be there to make sure management wasn’t violating their rights. The team member burst into tears as soon as we got into the office. Come to find out later on the member was stressed because they had a baby on the way.
  • Is it the job? Sometimes the job just gets to your team member. They may be tired of doing the same thing over and over again. They might need a promotion, a new assignment or unfortunately they may need to resign.
  • Is it co-workers? This team member probably doesn’t like someone else at the job. They could have had an argument or some other type of run in in the past that put them in an indefinite funk.

How To Coach An Employee Into Adopting A Positive Attitude

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This is where your communication skills will be put to the test. You’re going to have to figure out if their negative attitude has something to do with one or all of the above factors.

It’s important you set this team member on the right path because if you don’t, they could continue to disrupt the work environment, the work that needs to be done and overall team morale.

These types of behaviors have a bad tendency to metastasize and destroy the culture from within.

Initiate Dialogue

The first thing you need to do is open some sort of dialogue. Maybe you can open it up with a little small talk. Throw out some bait and see if they’ll bite.

I’d advise you try to get them to do most of the talking. Throw out a words. When they respond, nod your head and pause for a few seconds to see if they’ll follow up with information you can use to steer the conversation in the direction you want it to go.

The idea is to let them be heard. You want to soften them up a bit in order to plant seeds of behavior modification down the line. You can try to say something like “I completely understand. You have a baby on the way. It’s an exciting, anxiety inducing time. I can see why you’re on edge.”

The general idea is to let them know that you relate to them in a humanistic way.

Be objective

Once you’ve gotten them to acknowledge their terrible attitude, show them how this attitude has effected other team members as well as their own ability to contribute to their role.

Help them to take a birds eye view by having them imagine it was a co-worker behaving the way that they are.

If they succeed in taking a step back and seeing the damage they’re doing, they’ll feel remorseful and want to change the behavior immediately.

Remind Them Why They’re Here

My go to method was to remind them what they come to work to do. This helps them regain perspective in a practical way. Once they realize they’re coming to work and putting negative energy into a place they spend most of their waking hours, they realize how much of a waste it is.

Remind them that the workplace is to be a place where they’re comfortable because it’s where they spend most of their time.

Be Patient

Don’t jump the gun. Being abrupt is a sure fire way to have them shut down and be non-receptive to this conversation. I talk about communication being a two way street that takes into consideration not only your go to communication style based on your disposition but also your team members personality as well. Their personality dictates how they process information.

You can approach the situation from a non-combative angle by saying something like: “I notice as soon as you’re done with your assignment you pack up right a way and head home without even saying good bye to anyone.”

This is a good way to put their behavior on display without being judgmental or abrasive.

Close The Conversation With Key Points

If you feel the conversation was productive, let the team member know. Follow up with points you thought was vital and let them know you appreciate their cooperation.

Also, let them know you’ll be checking in on them to make sure they have the support they need. Assure them that they’re free to come speak with you whenever something is bothering them rather than airing it out on another team member.

Let Everyone Speak

If this is a repeat occurrence, one of your last resorts should be to call a team meeting. I’d personally reserved this form of intervention for extreme cases that involves multiple people.

It’s best you try to avoid this strategy all together if you can because it has the tendency for making the team member feel attacked.

The idea here is to let everyone on the team be heard. They need to voice their opinion in such a way that the team member with the negative attitude can hear, firsthand, how their negative attitude has effected their team members.

Set Up Goals And Action Plans

I’ve never had to do this myself but in some cases it’s necessary. This is when things get to a point where the team member is still struggling and not making any progress, so you have to set up some goals and action plans to map to the new behavior.

Part of being a coach in a leadership position means that you’re a model for specific behaviors. You have a way of handling yourself in a variety of circumstances including difficult ones.

If you haven’t already, find out what’s triggering the member and work with them on how to conduct themselves when they’re triggered. Show them what to do with those emotions.

If they’re truly struggling in a way that you’re not equipped to handle, refer them to a professional that deals with whatever problems they might be having.

At each step of the way you should be teaching the employee the benefits of a positive mental attitude in the work place. Continuously emphasize how a positive mental attitude benefits not only their professional life but their personal life as well.

Also emphasize that it’s in their best interest for them to be joy to be around. Nobody wants to network with a person who exhibits toxic, negative energy.

What If The Behavior Doesn’t Improve?

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Learn to say goodbye. It’s as simple as this. Being a leader isn’t all about coaching, teaching and rewarding your team members. It’s also about plucking the weeds when need be.

There’s been many times I’ve had to say goodbye. The first 2 times I had to say “goodbye” to a team member wasn’t easy. I felt guilty. I asked myself: “Is there more I could’ve done for them?”

It’s easy to feel guilty as a leader because you’ve taken on extreme ownership. Despite thinking everything is your fault, it actually isn’t. You only control your actions and your perspectives, not someone else’s attitude.

The Takeaway

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Look, don’t be afraid to address team members with a bad attitude. It comes with the job. You’re going to deal with many difficult people. Don’t let them ruin the work environment you’ve built.

Believe it or not, many people consider work to be their “second home.” Some use positive working environments as escapism for toxic home environments. They value the close-knit, family like structures in the work environment. Having a negative Ned ruin that for those who love coming to work would be a shame.

Understand that people with negative attitudes have some underlying issues. If you can rectify the underlying issue, do so. If you can’t then you might have to consider saying goodbye.

As a leader, you wear many hats: coach, psychologists, friend, mentor, motivator and beyond. It’s important you know when to put on one(or more) of these hats in order to solve specific problems.

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