Coaching an Employee with a Negative Attitude

Coaching a team member about a negative attitude can be one of the most uncomfortable, avoided, and mishandled leadership tasks. There are three main reasons why so many leaders avoid coaching people with a negative attitude:

  1. It’s Subjective

“Attitude” is subjective and can be open to interpretation, so it is challenging for leaders to determine when someone has actually crossed the line. It is even harder to clearly describe it to someone who is in a negative space or has a blind spot about their negative attitude and the impact it is having on others or the work itself.

  1. It’s Personal

When you engage in discussion about someone’s attitude, it becomes very personal for the individual you are coaching because attitude is often associated with someone’s predisposition or who they are as a person. When you coach or provide well-intended feedback about a person’s attitude, prepare yourself for some initial pushback. Many leaders don’t know how to handle defensiveness and resistance, so they avoid coaching altogether.

  1. It’s Foreign

Many leaders have not been exposed to the essential coaching skills and techniques they need to effectively handle sensitive issues. Leaders need a toolbox of competencies and a process to navigate their way into and out of a potentially difficult conversation.

How Do You Coach a Negative Person?Man struggling to coach

When you coach someone on attitude, you have to do a little homework. Good coaches make a loose plan in advance and prepare for a coaching discussion by anticipating reactions. They also do some self-reflection to determine if they are inadvertently contributing to the other person’s negative attitude. Most importantly, coaches need to think about and be prepared to discuss possible root causes of the negative attitude. Consider the three points of the “coaching triangle” to determine the root cause of the negativity:

The Person

Some people you coach may be naturally pessimistic, or they may be irritated and feeling critical of senior management. They could be experiencing personal health issues, have an acute problem at home, or have financial issues weighing on them.

Other People

The person you are coaching may be encountering a conflict with a co-worker, a customer, or a supplier. Many times, people feel excluded by their colleagues or underappreciated by their leaders. When people don’t feel valued or part of something important, they can become disagreeable, tense, or skeptical.

The Job

Consider the possibility that the job itself is creating pressure and stress that is triggering some negative emotions or discouragement that shows up in the behavior of a team member.

How Do You Turn Around an Employee with a Bad Attitude?

Keep in mind that any of the three categories above could be causing a negative attitude and that it can come from a combination of the three. Regardless of the root cause, a good coach must intervene and attempt to orchestrate a solution when attitude begins to disrupt the work that needs to be done, the workplace culture, or the team’s results. Here are the essential skills that have been proven to work in challenging coaching moments:

1) Exercise some patience and avoid discussing attitude in an abrupt or harsh way. Be matter-of-fact when you explain what you’re seeing and use descriptive words that don’t indict the person’s character. Stay focused on the coaching topic rather than introducing other opportunities for improvement into the discussion. For example, you might say, “I have noticed that when you arrive at work you tend to isolate yourself and are sharp and critical with people when they come to you with a question or if they need some help.” This type of approach allows you to be specific about the behavior or action without being aggressive or judgmental. your coaching discussion is likely to be much less productive if you open the discussion too aggressively by saying something like, “Why are you always so rude and dismissive of your co-workers? I think you have a really big problem that you need to fix.”

2) Facilitate a two-way dialogue by asking questions and listening carefully. If people feel like they’re being heard and understood, they are less likely to deny, deflect, or make excuses for their behavior. Be sure to acknowledge their feelings. For example, you might say something like, “I get it. When you are fighting horrible traffic every day and have some stresses at home, I can see why it would make you feel very negative.” People often have a legitimate blind spot and may not realize how noticeable their negativity has become. Good leaders have the courage to acknowledge that we are all human and get frustrated sometimes and to call out the negativity without punishing the person.

3) A coach should use facts and observations to explain how the negative emotions or attitudes are adversely affecting the performance of the business, the team, and the person being coached. To do this, you have to help them step back, see the bigger picture, and understand the effect of the problematic attitude. This is a litmus test of their maturity and ability to look at their actions from a different perspective, so give them the space to think, reflect, and consider the point you are trying to make.

female leader providing feedback

4) Clarifying or refreshing your expectations is another important part of coaching on this type of issue. For example, you can reaffirm the need to respect others and consider the welfare of the entire team. Explain that you expect everyone to control and manage their frustrations, irritations, and disruptions. Point out that when things in life seem unbearable, they can talk it out with you, another trusted mentor, or a professional counselor. The bottom line is that composure, civility, and self-awareness are legitimate job requirements for which everyone must be accountable.

5) Coaching on a team member’s negative attitude must come with a GPA: Goal, Plan, Action. Try to engage the person you are working with in setting a goal that is specific and realistic, outline a specific plan to help them reach their goal, and ask for a commitment to take action on the goal you’ve set together.

6) If the coaching conversation has been productive and you feel good about the discussion, close the conversation by making those important points. For example, you could say, “Thanks for your ideas and being open to my observations.” You might point out the benefits of making a change in this area to the person you are coaching and other stakeholders or team members. Finally, offer some support and set a time to revisit and check on progress, explore other options (if the initial plan isn’t working), and celebrate progress (if it is).

If you follow this process and balance your approach to the discussion (neither shying away nor coming on too strong), others will value your courage and appreciate your skills to help them manage their attitude or emotions, achieve success, and get more satisfaction from their work.

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About the Author

Steven Stowell, Ph.D.

Dr. Steven J. Stowell is the Founder and President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, Inc. CMOE was created in 1978 for the purpose of helping individuals and teams maximize their effectiveness and create strategic competitiveness. Steve’s special interests lie in helping leaders and organizations transform into high-performance cultures that are focused on long-term, sustained growth. Steve began his career working in the energy industry. During the past 30 years, Steve has consulted with both small and large corporations, government agencies, school systems, and non-profit organizations in 35 different countries. Steve enjoys the challenges of • Helping functional organizations define, create, and execute strategy in order to differentiate the business. • Developing and designing creative and innovative learning experiences, simulations, and keynote presentations. • Helping functions across the organization be more effective and aligned in executing long-term plans. The centerpiece of Steve’s consulting, learning, and executive coaching work is his advocacy of applied research and data collection. Steve is a highly effective presenter and facilitator and enjoys creating customized solutions, assisting senior teams, defining strategic direction from the individual level to the corporate and business-unit level, and improving teams that are faced with important challenges and issues.