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Can you coach a bad attitude?

bad attitude

The bad attitude is tough to coach

Is a bad attitude coachable?

As managers, I am confident we can train employees to learn our products, our software and to a certain extent our culture. Coaching an employee attitude is a different animal. How we think about life, our careers, our managers and our companies success is usually a reflection of our personal outlook on life. If we don’t like life, we probably aren’t going to like our job, manager, or company. We can coach, but it is up to the employee to change their mindset. We can lead a horse to water, but we can’t make them drink. 

It’s easy to be positive when:

  • Products are best in class
  • Deals are flowing in and revenue targets are being met
  • Interdepartmental dynamics and personal relations are positive

It’s easy to fall into a funk when:

  • Company products are not as strong as they could be
  • Revenue targets are not being met and the deal pipeline is weak
  • Projects are falling behind scheduled timelines

Start by hiring the right attitude

This is why I like to hire candidates who understand what it takes to struggle through hard times and still have a positive attitude. Employees who are positive, constant learners and have a track record of self-improvement are invaluable. Some qualities that give an indication of a positive attitude:

  • Are quick to smile and compliment others
  • Captain or co-captain of a sports team/Leadership position in a fraternity, sorority or association in school
  • Sees the glass half full vs. half empty
  • Worked a part-time job in high school and college
  • Passion for outside pursuits
    • When you have a passion, you will go the extra mile to immerse and experience that passion. Those without a passion haven’t necessarily learned how to become better through books, forums, networking, and online resources to name just a few. 

Obviously, there are many other indications of a positive attitude. Just because a candidate didn’t participate in extracurricular doesn’t mean they won’t be positive.

Where are you spending your time as a manager?

As managers, it’s easy to put a lot of effort into the low performer with a bad attitude. The trick is to determine whether or not the low performance is due to a lack of clear instruction or a bad attitude. As managers, we want to “fix” our employees and help them become assets to the team. One common theme, especially with new managers is that it is easy to put 90% of their effort into fixing the performers in the bottom 10%. The effort is well-intentioned. As managers, we feel it is our duty and responsibility. We don’t want the manager we are reporting to think that we are not effective managers. Low performers with a bad attitude are believed to be a reflection of our competence as managers.

90% of your effort into your top 10%

I encourage managers to invest 90% of their coaching effort into their performers in the top 10%. If a top performer is doing well without any guidance, think of what they could do with a little bit of encouragement and coaching. Generally speaking, the top performer has a positive attitude, adapts well to change and is quick to smile. This is the group that will put in the extra time and effort to finish a project on time. This is the group we want to retain, give an opportunity to, promote and then lather, rinse and repeat.

Make no mistake, I am not an advocate for stack ranking. If I have Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein, and Bill Gates on the team, I am not going to say one of them is in the bottom third of the team and let one go. If any of these individuals were having a tough time learning a new product or service, I am happy to spend the time working with them to bring them up to speed. But if they have an attitude that is tearing down the team, or putting the manager, team or department down, that is a different matter altogether. To be clear, I don’t believe in cutting the bottom 10% every year.

Know when to stop coaching a bad attitude

Instead of trying to coach these individuals to become better for months on end, I believe we should just lay out what the right behavior is. They will get it or they won’t. The employee will want to get it or they won’t. Their attitude and initiative will determine their behavior and fate. Remember, the employee isn’t paying the company to allow them to work. The company is paying the employee for results. It is a privilege to work at any company. As an HR professional, I look out for the company first. By looking out for the company, I am looking out for the individual. Employees that are not performing or tearing down the team are negatively affecting the company.

Not every company culture will be the right fit for every employee and not every employee will be the right fit for the company. That is OK and as managers and employees, we should recognize this. Remember, a top performer will lose faith in their manager if they don’t see anything being done about the low performer. Top performers don’t know that they are being paid more than lower performers.

Watch for upcoming posts where we share how to have a performance conversation with a low performer or an employee with a bad attitude. 

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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