Just when you thought it was safe to go back to your office (cue the dramatic music), the lurking leader awaits – patiently waiting to provide you some coaching regarding your performance. There’s only one small problem…the leader believes they know what to address when in fact they aren’t quite sure and it’s not necessarily their fault. Herein lies the common dilemma for many people managers when looking to address a difficult employee.

Should they focus on the individuals “attitude” or their “behavior” or both or does it matter?

The short answer is yes, yes and undoubtedly yes.

Believe it or not, there is a difference between the two and it’s most commonly overlooked resulting in a collapse of focus – leaving the leader (playing coach) at an unassuming disadvantage.

Just as I stated in my previous article how listening is the key to success, differentiating what you should address is the focus of today. This article will break down the following:

  • The difference between Attitude and Behavior
  • Why it’s important
  • What you can do about it

I never realized how polarized these two words were until I began researching quotes for this article only to find some powerful messages that left me scratching my head in further confusion.

NOTE: For the sake of this article, I am not using the term “coaching” in the context of a certified and trained coach but rather using the basic fundamentals of coaching to improve employee performance.

Attitude Versus Behavior

So which came first, the employee with a bad attitude or the one with bad behavior?

While you noodle on that, let’s begin with what we know in an effort to dismantle what you think you already understand. Attitude and behavior have coexisted for a long time sharing the same definitions when in fact they are different. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Attitude is a person’s mental outlook, which defines the way we think or feel anything. It is a predisposition to respond in a settled way to a person, event, opinion, object, etc., which is reflected in our body language. It has a strong impact on our decisions, actions, stimuli, etc. Education, experience, and environment are the major factors that affect a person’s attitude.
  • Behavior is an individual or group reaction to inputs such as an action, environment or stimulus which can be internal or external, voluntary or involuntary, conscious or subconscious.

So there you have it, simple right (ample sarcasm implied)?. The model above does an excellent job breaking apart the two meanings and here it is summarized in one sentence: A person’s attitude affects thoughts while their behavior affects actions.

Why It’s Important

I would hope it would be pretty clear as to why having an employee (or employee’s) with bad attitudes and poor behavior would not only bring down morale but the overall performance of your team and organization.

There are numerous reasons why you may have to confront both of these within the workplace. Here is what you need to remember:

  • For any employee to consistently display acceptable behavior in the workplace, they must first maintain a positive attitude towards their job.

If an employee develops negative feelings about their job, these feelings can influence their behaviors and could result in low productivity and subpar performance – something no leader wants. What’s worse is that this type of attitude and behavior can become toxic very quickly and disrupt the overall team and/or organization. To the contrary, an employee who feels respected by their leader and maintains a good attitude, typically displays the appropriate behavior you would hope (and want) to see in the workplace.

What You Can Do About It

Before we jump into how to address and/or coach an employee, it’s important to remember the following:

  • People in general don’t think they have a bad attitude and even if they do, they typically believe they have justification for it anyway. If the happen to suffer from a low EQ, the situation can prove more challenging.

Since attitude isn’t an observable behavior itself, your employee(s) need to know what they “are” doing so they can shift. The question you want to ask is: what are the behaviors that aren’t working with this individual?

Here is just a small list of observable behaviors to watch out for:

  • rudeness, cynicism, yelling, gossiping and anger

The normal tendency is for leaders to call out this persons bad attitude in the form of coaching but the end result will undeniably end with you encountering a level of defiance and possible withdrawal from the interaction. Instead, talk about specific unacceptable behaviors — which you can frame as temporary and possibly changeable.

Breathe, it’s not all doom-and-gloom. Here is what I have done that’s been proven to work, even with the most challenging of employees:

  1. Focus on their behaviors: Share with the individual what you have observed that’s brought you to this point. Describe the unacceptable behaviors as observations and not an attack on their character to avoid a wall going up and the listening to tune out.
  2. Describe the impact of their behaviors: Many times (but not always) the individual is unaware of how they are coming off and the impact it’s having in the workplace and on other colleagues. Take the time to clearly illustrate this impact and feel free to tie it into their goals and the things they said are important to their career. This will make it easier to visual and the potential of jeapordizing something that’s important to them may be the spark needed to realize the seriousness of the situation.
  3. Define a clear set of behavioral expectations moving forward: If you’ve made it thus far: Given this conversation, now create a clear picture of what the successful behaviors are and how those behaviors will change their results. The more the other person is involved in it the better. After all, it is their behavior after all.
  4. Build a plan for improvement: All of the rest is of little value if there isn’t a plan for changing their behaviors. Help them create a plan and determine how you, as their coach, can encourage and support the plan’s success.

Final Thoughts: Watch how much time, money and energy you invest into someone who is chronically displaying both of these characteristics. Too much investment drawing little success can have you perceived as a weak leader whereas not enough could label you as scared and aloof. The truth is that many “problem employees” can become your “model employees” when you follow sound coaching processes.