Manager’s Special: dealing with a bad attitude

I went to my local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library the other day to pick up a book I’d put on hold. When I couldn’t find it on the shelves, I approached the woman working the help desk. She looked it up and saw that it had mistakenly been sent to a different branch, somewhere deep in the heart of Brooklyn.

angry lion (tomconger)
Courtesy of tomconger

“Could we call them and ask them to send it to this branch?” I asked.

You can,” she said. “You can use the website on your library card to look up the phone number.”

SOME HELP DESK, I thought to myself.

“Could I call them from here? I just assumed there might be an easy way to do that in your system…”

This time she snapped. It wasn’t her fault that the book went to a different branch; I should be more careful when reserving items. She again referred me to the website on my library card. She gave me the stink eye and I gave it right back as I strolled out the door.

After I calmed down, I wondered about this woman’s work environment. How was this attitude tolerated? I’d encountered other extremely defensive employees in the past at BPL and it made me wonder what larger issues are going on underneath the surface. For some reason, this woman did not feel safe going out on a (miniscule!) ledge to help me work through a problem. She was wound up tighter than a spring.

I’ve seen this kind of defensive reaction before. It happens when people don’t feel secure in their role. Whenever there is continued bad behavior on a team, I look immediately to the person in charge because, like it or not, the manager sets the tone. If there’s repeated bad behavior, then it means that the manager is letting it happen.

Here are three quick ways for you to correct a bad attitude and the resulting behavior. The good news is, it’s not brain surgery:

  1. Make sure YOU don’t have a bad attitude.  Are your team members talking badly about the client? Make sure you’re not doing that. Are they showing up late? Arrive on time. Remember, you set the tone. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to decide what’s most important to the team and model that.
  2. Have the conversation NOW.  As soon as you notice bad behavior, confront the employee, one-on-one. Confronting the behavior as soon as it happens means that you aren’t letting it become part of the team’s culture. If confronting someone makes you nervous, that’s alright. You’re not alone. But you are a manager… so finding a way to confront someone in a productive way is part of the work. You can use language like “I’ve noticed you’re pretty [negative] lately in meetings. It’s harming the team and I want to talk to you because I’m worried about what’s causing it.” Boom. You just confronted productively.
  3. Follow up.  First time, it’s a conversation, but you should have a plan for subsequent discussions. If the behavior continues, you need to be prepared to move things along. Some companies have official escalation systems that involve the HR department, but cc’ing your manager on the communications will do in a pinch. Summarize what you’ve discussed with the employee, your new expectations and a near-future date when you’ll sit down to discuss progress. Of course, your assessment should be tailored to the severity of the behavior. Use your gut to figure out what’s serious and what’s a waste of process.

Addressing a bad attitude is an opportunity to uncover systemic problems and to build a supportive bridge between you and your employee. If you can do this you won’t only correct the current behavior issues, but you’ll have created a foundation of support and communication. A current troublemaker could be a future champion on the team if you play your cards right. So have the tough discussion because it’s important work and it makes a difference. Good luck!