Leadership Challenge: How Long Do You Coach a Bad Attitude?

Leadership Challenge: Coaching a Bad Employee Attitude

Business success in any size enterprise depends on positive can-do attitudes. It is also weakened and destabilized by just one bad attitude. The leadership challenge is how long do you coach a bad attitude?

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Leadership Challenge: Coach a Bad Attitude?

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Leadership Challenge: Does One Negative Attitude Mean You’re a Bad Leader?

Some leaders and managers make it their ultimate goal to transform the one employee with the bad attitude. They believe that their leadership challenge is to change that one employee’s attitude from negative to positive.

Once such manager recently asked me, “how long do you work on the bad morale of a negative employee?” This manager had been trying for six months with no change. I replied, never! You cannot work on someone else’s morale. People choose and own their individual attitudes.

The true leadership challenge is how to inspire employees with basically positive attitudes to reach the heights of success. It isn’t to coach a bad attitude.

The latter is a waste of time and money. The team members who bring a positive can-do attitude use your inspiration to magnify success. An employee with a bad attitude uses you and team members to live their negative life choice.

Coaching a bad attitude means you are spending time on their mission instead of the mission of the organization. It drains other team members’ morale. Often they leave to escape the stress. They blame the leader for not stopping the endless negativity of the one employee. Then the leadership challenge becomes the desperate attempt to keep the great talent in house!

Are you surprised to hear me, The People Skills Coach™, say don’t coach a bad attitude?

Well, what do I mean by a bad attitude? I am not speaking about an employee who offers a different view, contributes alternate solutions, or is having an occasional bad day. 

A employee with a bad attitude is consistently unmotivated, rarely offers to help, is constantly negative, analyzes but doesn’t deliver, and refuses to work with necessary constraints.

If you find yourself thinking, but this negative employee …

  • Just needs more time to develop a positive attitude
  • Will come around eventually
  • Is still recovering from the previous bad boss
  • Is having a rough year
  • Is young and immature
  • Is good in a crisis

you are not meeting your leadership challenge. You are experiencing denial and delay.

Positive attitudes do not develop over time. As long as you are exhibiting good leadership, the employee must choose to forget the last boss and give you a new chance. Youth and negativity are not inherently connected. Lastly, people who are good in a crisis do not bring everyone else down in normal situations.

Ask yourself, how does upper management define the leadership challenge? Would upper management be swayed by the above list when trying to assess the value of your organization? Or would they ask you to calculate the cost of having employees who don’t use positive attitudes to deliver great results?

Leaders, if you struggle with the idea of expecting a positive attitude, ask yourself why? Do you …

  • Want to be liked by each employee more than you want to inspire the whole team
  • Fear the necessary conversation about a bad attitude
  • Believe you have the power to change people
  • Believe that expecting and requiring a positive attitude means you are a tyrant
  • Feel bad about yourself if an employee has a bad attitude toward the job
  • Believe that positive employees won’t want to work in your organization

I see this trend among certain personality types, managers who are leading their former peers, and leaders who replaced a rough demoralizing micro-manager.

Break your own cycle. Consider what positive can-do team members do …

  • Offer realistic solutions to fix frustrating/difficult situations they don’t like.
  • Own their occasional bad day.  When they ask for help, they try the suggestions you offer vs. negating your ideas and continuing to complain.
  • Learn from many situations – the good and the bad – instead of complaining about them.
  • Take action and collaborate to deliver success.

Now picture what you will expect of everyone. A positive attitude to create business success now. Remember, someone who is capable of choosing a positive attitude can choose it now.  An employee who had a dictatorial boss before could be thrilled by a chance to work with a better leader now.  Young employees can be positive about the possibilities that lie ahead. Team members who are positive in a crisis have the mental strength to choose a positive attitude everyday.

Get back on track. Focus on the true leadership challenge of inspiring great results. Expect a positive attitude and inspire the possibilities that come from it!

  • Foster an active learning culture.
  • Feature team successes and lessons learned.
  • Ask for solutions; don’t just give them.
  • Recognize innovative thought, outstanding effort, commitment, and action.
  • Express your appreciation at the end of the week for tough situations handled well.
  • Let no one disillusion or distract you and the team from the leadership challenge and organization mission.

Positive attitudes don’t deny the difficulties the team faces. They are the very fuel for overcoming obstacles. Create an environment for a positive can-do attitude and then expect it from everyone!

What other actions do you recommend to create an environment for a can-do attitude?

From my professional experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™

I invite you to connect with me on Google+, LinkedIn, and Twitter. I welcome your questions. I will respond with inspiration and practical tips!

Related Post:
Leaders, A Great Employee Attitude is Essential Not Negotiable

©2011-2014 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. I appreciate your sharing the link to this post on your social streams. However, if you want to re-post or republish the content of this post, please email info@katenasser.com for permission and guidelines. Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™, delivers coaching, consulting, training, and keynotes on leading change, employee engagement, teamwork, and delivering the ultimate customer service. She turns interaction obstacles into interpersonal success. See this site for workshop outlines, keynote footage, and customer results.

21 Responses to “Leadership Challenge: How Long Do You Coach a Bad Attitude?”

  1. Kristen Judd says:

    Kate –
    This is an excellent post. There is no question that an employee with a negative attitude is a drain on everyone around him or her. I too have made the mistake of thinking I could coach or cheerlead an inherently negative person into better performance. Unfortunately I had to learn the hard way that for some people such an attitude simply cannot be adjusted and the only solution is to remove them swiftly before they poison the well. Thank you for this eloquent reminder.

  2. Kate, I think you bring up some valid points in this post. However, when we find ourselves as managers dealing with these attitudes I think we really need to separate the behavior from the individual. There is always a reason for unwanted behavior apart from attitude. It could be a question of your effectiveness as a leader or because of a lack of job clarity. Often it is easier to slap an attribute on the individual and never really find out what the true cause is.
    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      A bit of disagreement in your one sentence Miriam — you say there is always a reason for the negative behavior — and you mention all external factors like leadership effectiveness, job clarity and such.

      It is good to check those things and create an environment of positive inspiration and communication. Yet experience has shown that some people (not many) do continue with unwanted behavior because of things within them or in their personal life. When a manager/leader thinks it is always job related — they bring the org. down.

      I do agree that labels don’t contribute anything — neither does a bad attitude. Many thanks for your contribution and thoughts.
      Best wishes,

  3. Liz Weber says:

    Kate I love your line: Coaching a bad attitude means you are spending time on their misssion… Beautifully said and so true!

  4. Bart Gragg says:

    Maybe I missed something here, Kate, but my thought is:
    “First thing? As the manager? Check your own attitude!

    Then remember this – if yours is bad theirs will eventually be worse. They can’t change you. You change you.

    Even if you don’t think you can be the cheerleader, you can start by not demoralizing your employees.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Great ideas Bart for creating that positive environment in which most people thrive. And when you have done all that and one or two still live the negative — time to realize you can’t change them anymore than they can change you.

      Thanks for your contribution here!

  5. Tom Billings says:

    Great idea. While I agree you cannot coach bad attitude, you can create an opportunity for someone to realize that there is an attitude problem in the first place. Further, you can make clear that this attitude concern will have its own consequences. I have found that these folks often dont realize that they have a problem until you bring it to their attention.
    The situation will determine best how to bring something like this to their attention; it could be a low evaluation score, tough MBO criteria, a frank and open discussion, or a multitude of other options/combinations. But it’s a one time ‘discussion’, typically.
    If, in the end, this person will not have the desire or determination to affect change, then you will have to make the tough decision, or help them find other options. (The latter can pay huge dividends, if that person will truly find something that motivates them to succeed.)
    Bottom line, is that IMHO a quick reality check and short term coaching can make a difference, but to your point, it makes little sense to devote great gobs of time on such a project.

  6. JK says:

    Thank you; what a timely article! I am five months new to an organization and had a conversation just last week with my supervisor regarding someone I supervise.

    This person is very similar to the one you describe: “under-motivated, constantly negative, analyzes but doesn’t deliver…” As a new supervisor, I want to help this person be more satisfied at work, encourage her to work proactively, and realize how capable she is of doing great work. She, on the other hand, is vocal about not being interested in any change (well, any change that involves change on her part) and I need to realize there isn’t anything I can do about changing her attitude to one that’s more positive, as unfortunate as I think it is.

    It’s a hard pill to swallow, but will help keep me from dwelling on something I have no control over. Thank you for your insight!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      I am so honored that you shared your story with me and my readers. I have seen it many times and you have shown one more real time example of the this very challenge.

      My advice is: Lead for success; don’t parent this one complainer. You have an entire team to inspire, guide, and collaborate with. If you remember that you will lead them all to mission success! Else, you will end up living the negative complainer’s mission.

      There is no choice here — your direction is clear.

      All the best to you and let me know what other challenges you face as a new supervisor. I welcome blog post ideas and open exchange of ideas.


  7. Kate, thanks for this post.
    You are so right! You wrote the bad attitude… ” can also demoralize the committed team members” who are there and really want to make a difference. I agree that NOT dealing with a bad attitude sends a message loud and clear to everyone else… and not one that should be communicated. Everyone knows the bad apples and leadership must learn to deal effectively and decisively with the rotten ones. Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away.

  8. Dan says:


    Thanks for this post — it is such a common concern of managers and co-workers. I don’t think I’ve ever taught a class on coaching, and I’ve taught many, where the challenge of “bad attitude” did not come up. There are stories of turn-arounds and there are stories of impossible situations. Clearly the leadership focus is on helping people grow, and surely not just one or two who are really failing.

    I would add that for those managers who must directly address the person with the “attitude” (and clearly there are many situations and many organizations where this is the case) it is valuable to identify the specific behavior that’s a problem and also to spend some time getting ready to communicate the impacts of these behaviors on the work, on the team, and on the person’s ability to achieve their own apparent goals. Then, it is a relatively straightforward process, with three questions: 1) Did you as the manager provide the person with the behavioral feedback, including the impacts? 2) Did the person own the feedback and take responsibility? 3) Did the person change their behavior? If the answer to the first question is no, that’s where you start. If the answers to the next question is no, but the behavior changes, that may be a positive outcome, but might also be merely temporary compliance, and will bear further observation. If the answer to the second question is yes, but the answer to the third question is no, that may be a placement issue or something else is going on. Clearly if you’ve given the feedback, there was no ownership and no change, you know what your course of action must be, and you know you’ve been thorough in doing your job. While there are some variations on these themes (for example, the temporary compliance/slip back to old behavior problem which really represents no change), I’ve found that most cases can be diagnosed in this way.

    I would only add one example, which I continue to think is remarkable. This came from the manager of an airplane painting crew. Apparently, there aren’t very many experienced specialists in the field (everybody knows everybody) and the manager told me that to get the skills needed, he was often in the position of hiring individuals he knew were quite negative and adversarial. This guy had a remarkable heart. He told me it generally took him about two years to turn one of these negative crew members around. How did you do that, I asked? He told me that the answer lay in offering positive message after positive message, replacing every one of the negative messages that the crew member was not just voicing to others but also to him- or herself, about the industry, about managers and bosses, about the company, about co-workers etc. To carry that kind of persistent, patient love is a total gift. I think he also carried a very firm, confident expectation for the kind of team he wanted and needed, but what a patient, honorable boss to work at replacing prior programing in this way!

    Thanks again for opening this one up!
    All the best

  9. Scott Sensat says:

    Nice post and couldn’t agree more. It’s always interesting how some will find excuses for bad attitudes. Leaders and managers should place “Attitude” as a non-negotiable.
    ? Being in a professional mood everyday is your responsibility.
    ? A bad mood is unacceptable
    ? Attitude toward coworkers, management and customers is equally important

    If you can’t abide by a non-negotiable, then you can’t work here. If you consistently come to work in an unprofessional mood, then you can’t work here.

  10. Scott Mabry says:

    Great post Kate. This is an area where I have struggled over the years always wanting to see the best in people and working at helping them turn it around. I have had some successes that were very powerful both to the individual and the team but at other times I have taken far too long to act when it was clear the person was only giving lip service or was ultimately not willing to make the needed change.

    I’ve learned to balance my desire to help and serve with the need to act quickly for the better of the organization. It is not an easy balance to maintain, and requires cultivating awareness and courage to act, but the difficult actions have ultimately proven to be for the best.

    On a couple of occasions the person on the receiving end has actually been thankful recognizing that they were acting out in response to the fact that they really didn’t want to be in the role but didn’t know how to leave or couldn’t push themselves to make the choice they knew was right for them. Thanks for these great points on a difficult leadership subject.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      As I read your comment Scott, I was moved by the insight it illustrates. Yes, it is a difficult topic. Yes many leaders do struggle with balancing wanting to help people grow with the needs of the organization and inspired team members.

      When you said it “takes awareness and courage”, I let out a big “YES!” in my office.

      The last comment you made struck home with me. I have had people walk up to me at the end of workshops and say straight out “I guess I need to own up to my dissatisfaction with this job and move on to be happy someplace else.” I’ve even had one person send me an email subsequently saying it changed her life.

      I am so grateful for your examples and response here. You have expanded this post.

      Warmest thanks,

  11. Jason Cortel says:

    I prefer no longer than 30-days. Coach first, write-up second then performance plan. Unfortunately, I have noticed that some of my peers will tolerate a high-performer’s bad attitude longer without redirection.

    Great article!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Very interesting comment Jason. It is that moment — when a high performer has a bad attitude — that leadership’s commitment to teamwork and the total picture is tested.

      Many thanks for adding your story here. Hope you will contribute to any post where your life in the trenches can help others grow.

      Warmest wishes and thanks,

  12. Coaching is all about behaviors not attitudes. In my experience attitudes are much deeper and more difficult to change. They generally come from a belief system.

    Leaders should avoid trying to change beliefs and stick with behaviors when it comes to coaching. And more importantly build a strong set of interview questions that will uncover bad attitudes so they don’t infect your organization in the first place.

  13. Krad says:

    I have similar experience. I am working as a new supervisor for a team of 12. I found one guy exceptionally wrong in terms of attitude since 4 months. He seldom completes any task to completion giving many excuses. Others cover him during his absence, support him because he is deadly slow even though he is capable. He is not serious at his assignments leading to quality issues. I am giving continuous feedback but there is no much difference. I am afraid that this guy will infect the whole team.

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