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Opinion: 6 ways to handle an employee’s bad attitude

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It’s surprising how much time can get wasted at work when people complain or listen to others complain.

I’ve read estimates suggesting that employees typically spend 10 hours or more a month actively complaining or listening to complaints. Chronic complainers at work are often viewed as having bad attitudes – and for good reason.

No one likes to work around a chronic grumbler, whiner, griper, backbiter or criticizer. Eventually, a co-worker’s bad attitude can affect our own perspective, and if we allow, it can even influence our career trajectory or reputation.

Maybe we should expect to see more negativity at work. Just consider all the pessimism, criticism, hateful speech, fear and anxiety that runs virtually unbridled throughout social media, politics and the news. It can eventually create a negative lens through which we see our world, including our jobs.

When an organization has a negative or critical atmosphere, it can affect employees and our customers’ experiences. Leaders need to be proactive about managing negativity, recognize it early and intervene before it damages turnover, morale, productivity or the organization’s brand reputation.

Bad employee attitudes, among employees or managers, don’t mix with a positive work culture. Here are six tips for handling bad attitudes effectively.

1. Invite some negativity. Healthy complaining can contribute to achieving better results, if it can pass three tests: Will it help our team? Will it help our customers? Will it help someone who may not want to hear it but needs to? If the complaint will help add value to a person or to the organization, it should be voiced. But if it won’t add value, put a lid on it.

2. Notice negativity. Have your ears to the ground, pay attention to what’s being said and what’s not being said. Negativity doesn’t like isolation, so it looks to recruit others. Get people aside or take them to lunch and solicit their input, then take their feedback seriously and intervene before negativity grows.

3. Create values that resist bad attitudes. Set clear values that make it difficult for whining, criticizing or grumbling to thrive. I once had an employee who created conflict in her first week with behavior that was inconsistent with our teamwork value. Since I had gone over this with her before hiring, it was easy for me to reinforce its importance and the possible consequences if it wasn’t upheld. Fortunately, she changed her behavior and became a long-term, productive employee.

4. Decide how you will resolve attitude versus aptitude. Will you retain a high aptitude employee if it means you must also tolerate their bad attitude? One client I coached thought he could do both. While he benefitted from the employee’s outstanding results, he also had to deal with the adverse effects it had on other employees. When the manager made the decision to release the employee, other employees thanked him. The relief it gave everyone was energizing, attitudes improved, and the overall results never suffered.

To minimize harm to your team’s morale, determine how you will handle a high performer with a bad attitude.

5. Don’t lump people together. Don’t scold everyone when only a few naysayers are the problem. Find the source and deal with them individually. Help them understand how their behavior is affecting the organization and their teammates.

6. Place proper emphasis on positivity. It’s easier to control negativity if leaders consistently draw attention to what is positive, good, charitable and praiseworthy. Managing people requires the right balance of critical and positive feedback. Managers who struggle with being positive and doling out sufficient gratitude to others, could unwittingly perpetuate negative attitudes among staff. Emphasize positivity, sufficiently.

Dealing decisively with negativity at work helps create both a positive employee work culture and experience for customers.

Consultant, professional speaker and author Mark Holmes is president of Consultant Board Inc. and He can be reached at


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