How to Manage a Team Member With A Negative Attitude

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How can I deal with a team member with a bad attitude?

“How can I deal with a project team member whose attitude sucks?”

That was what a reader got in touch to ask recently. It got me thinking about times that I have had to manage a team member with a negative attitude and fortunately there haven’t been that many.

Maybe that’s because I deal with people problems before they become huge sources of conflict (ha! No it’s not that) or I’m such a paragon of leadership (ha! It’s definitely not that) or because I’ve been lucky with always working with professionals who care about their work (yep, more likely to be that one).

Having said that, in my line management role I had to deal with individuals who didn’t work in the professional way I would expect, or the way my company culture finds acceptable.

And I know my team members have had people in their teams who haven’t had the attitude one might expect.

I know it’s not uncommon – I’m sure it’s not just that one reader who is facing team members who don’t turn up to work ready to do their job.

Let me tell you what I think that looks like and what you can do about it.

Examples of negative attitude in the workplace

There’s a difference between having a bad day (or week, or month) and more generally having an negative attitude on a project, or to work more generally, so let’s deal with that first.

Someone who is having a bad day

I frequently have bad days. These generally happen where I’ve had less than 4 hours unbroken sleep because I have little boys who do not sleep either.

I make it to work; I want to do a good job but I find it hard to concentrate on anything that needs concentration. So I do the easy work on those days and procrastinate on the bigger jobs.

That’s not a negative attitude – at least, not in my book. That’s life for millions of working parents, and we catch up on sleep eventually and turn it around. It doesn’t affect my performance overall.

Bad days happen for any number of reasons – bad months happen too, when team members have huge life upheavals such as moving house, illness in the family or a bereavement. As managers, we make allowances: these are not ‘difficult employees’.

Help is available for those employees who need a little extra boost, in the form of:

  • Mental health first aiders
  • Hardship funds
  • Employee assistance programs and helplines
  • Compassion and grace from their colleagues: if you have created a culture of psychological safety, then hopefully people feel like they can share their challenges and you can respond in the way you would like to be treated.

Make use of the discretion you have as a colleague and manager, and signpost employees in challenging situations to the resources and help available to them.

And now back to the point of this article: what if you aren’t faced with someone going through a temporarily difficult time, but someone who gossips, doesn’t contribute, is generally negative and putting a downer on everything?

You shouldn’t have to make allowances for negative attitudes in the workplace once you’ve established that there is nothing else going on and that this is not a temporary blip for a normally productive, performing individual.

Someone with an unprofessional attitude

Unprofessionalism manifests itself in a number of ways including:

  • An open dislike of you or another team member, for example using negative body language or openly being rude towards you in public
  • Passive-aggressive behavior or personal attacks
  • Trying to undermine you or another team member behind your backs or in front of you which affects team cohesion
  • Failing to deliver on tasks and not letting you know about it
  • Generally not caring about outcomes and not having the same passion for the work as you do
  • Not showing any effort, although they possibly do demonstrate a better work ethic in other areas of their role
  • Making the team feel like they have to carry this individual and do their work so the project doesn’t suffer.

I learned from Christine Unterhitzenberger’s research into how project managers engage stakeholders that there is no such thing as a difficult stakeholder. In other words, it’s unlikely that you’re truly up against a toxic employee.

It’s much more likely to be that you are working with someone who is in the wrong job, can’t do the job, doesn’t like the job or the company or something similar.

It is very rare that someone turns up to work to be miserable on purpose or to undermine and make everyone else’s lives miserable. We’re all just doing our best.

Managing a team member with a negative attitude

You don’t have the time or the energy to carry someone along for the ride. You’ve got three choices to deal with someone with a bad attitude:

  • Performance manage them
  • Coerce them (ignore this one, I’m not serious about this as it doesn’t work)
  • Remove them.

Let’s look at each of these.

1. Performance manage them

You should have an employee performance review with your manager regularly. We have them formally once a year to set goals and expectations, and that’s the first place to start if you need to manage someone who is underperforming in their role for whatever reason — and poor behavior is part of that.

Understanding their motivation for their behavior and what motivates them to work is a good place to start, especially if you notice discrepancies in their behavior (it’s up and down and inconsistent).

Perhaps they perform well for someone else or do a fantastic job on a different project. That could point to it being a personality clash, lack of understanding or lack of support for your project’s goals.

What would encourage them to behave better, less negatively? Find out, and see if you can offer it to them. There are some ideas in my ultimate guide to getting people to take responsibility at work.

Work with them to address any issues they are facing, especially if they don’t understand how their negative attitude is affecting the rest of the team.

Provide constructive feedback related to their job performance. Lack of skill can also manifest itself as a poor attitude at work, so help them improve their skill levels if they are open to that.

You can also work with HR and/or their line manager to put together a proactive approach and a plan to help improve performance in line with expectations.

It might look something like this:

  • Review their objectives: did they know what was expected? Were the objectives achievable? Have other business priorities meant they couldn’t achieve them through no fault of their own?
  • Think about the individual’s skill, willingness, openness to learning new things and improving their performance and see how these elements may have affected their ability to perform.
  • Review the environment: do they have the tools, resources, systems and processes required to do the job?
  • Find out if the individual realizes they are underperforming in your assessment. Help them see the situation from your perspective, and make a big effort to see it from their perspective. Organize 360 feedback if you think it is beneficial.
  • Re-set goals; make action plan.
  • Monitor action plan and provide support as required.

Create a plan in accordance with company policies and follow through on it. This might include changing their duties or moving them into another role.

Someone can be doing a good enough job and fulfilling their job requirements and still be unpleasant to be around. Focus on modeling and setting expectations around positive behaviors as well as ensuring tasks are done to standard.

Talking to someone about behavior and their impact on the team is a difficult conversation to have. Bring in some support from your HR team or an experienced colleague if you feel you need it, and plan for each conversation in advance.

Disciplinary action may follow if they continue to show disruptive behavior. Make sure you hold formal meetings so everything is documented, in case the natural conclusion of this process is Option 3: Remove them from the business.

2. Coerce them (yikes!)

This is really not a good choice.

Coercion is where you use the threat of action to get them to behave in a certain way, such as threatening a demotion, or a poor performance review. It’s too easy to spill from this into workplace bullying.

This is not going to improve anyone’s attitude. Don’t go there.

how to manage a team member with a negative attitude

3. Remove them

If you’ve tried performance management and haven’t seen any effect then this is where you go next.

Workplace negativity can destroy your project team from the inside out. Think of the resentment from other people at the fact they have to do that person’s work. You are at risk of losing high-performing employees and damaging team morale.

And they’ll be secretly criticizing you for not doing anything about it. They deserve a safe, supportive work environment which is a pleasant place to be.

Incidentally, so does the colleague exhibiting continuous negativity — and it’s probably not going to be in your team.

Once you’ve exhausted your plan to help improve their performance, just get rid of them. If you think they can contribute effectively on another team where there aren’t personality clashes or other causes of the conflict that you’ve seen, then move them to where they can do a quality job for the company.

If that isn’t possible, manage them out. I’m not an HR professional and I know that employment laws vary around the world, so take advice on whether you do this and how you do this.

But for the sanity of the rest of the team, and the success of the project, I really feel that this is the best option in the majority of truly ‘bad attitude’ cases.

Let them use their skills in an organization which is a better fit for them.

I bet that 99% of the people you work with are dedicated, committed professionals.

Negative attitudes at work aren’t unknown, but they aren’t really common either. Hopefully if you come across someone who can’t work with, you now have a better idea about what to do.

Further resources

Shortcuts to Success: Project Management in the Real World: my book has a section on managing project teams.

Results Without Authority by Tom Kendrick: helpful suggestions for dealing with people when you don’t have line management responsibility for them.

The Accidental Leader by Harvey Robbins: includes tips on meeting a team for the first time and setting expectations for performance.

This article was originally inspired by by Ben Snyder’s book, Everything’s a Project: 70 Lessons from Successful Project-Driven Organizations.