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Don’t Spray the Skunk – Stop Focusing on “Attitudes” in the Workplace!

“Really, you say? Employee attitudes mean EVERYTHING in my company. We can’t afford to have employees with bad attitudes. They’ll drive off customers and poison the work environment.”

Agreed! But the problem is, you can’t really measure employees’ attitudes. Merriam-Webster defines attitude as “a feeling or emotion toward a fact or state.” Yes, we know a lousy attitude when we see it, but we can’t objectively measure employees’ feelings and emotions no matter how important they may be. We CAN, however, measure employees’ observable behaviors which are indicators of their attitudes.

Imagine a performance feedback scenario involving Doris, a customer service manager, and
Luanne, an employee who frequently interacts with customers. Doris says, “Luanne, you have a bad attitude with customers.” How do you think Luanne is going to respond to this highly subjective comment? How would you like being told that you “have a bad attitude?” You’d probably be so insulted and rejected that it just might make your attitude even worse! Focusing on an employee’s “bad attitude” is like spraying a skunk with cheap cologne – it will make the skunk angry and result in an even bigger stink!

Now imagine the same scenario, with Doris taking a different approach with Luanne. This time, Doris says, “Luanne, over the past month we have received an average of three to four customer complaints per week regarding your behavior. Customers are reporting that you are rude to them on the telephone and that you don’t answer their questions satisfactorily.” Notice that the word “attitude” wasn’t used anywhere in the feedback Doris gave to Luanne.

And that’s exactly what performance feedback needs to be – feedback. Not subjective opinions about employees’ feelings or emotions, but objective (as much as possible) information and observations of their actual one-the-job behavior. It might be behavior that you’ve observed, customers have observed, or co-workers have observed – but somebody has observed it. It’s measurable, though not necessarily in numbers, and it’s something that the employee can change if given clear expectations and coaching and, in some cases, disciplinary actions.

How can managers make the shift from focusing on attitudes to measuring behaviors?
  • Clearly state what behaviors are expected.
    You cannot tell employees that you want them to “feel” a certain way. What you can do is tell them how you expect them to act. Spell out acceptable and unacceptable job-related behaviors.
  • Let employees know how behaviors will be measured.
    There’s no one best way to evaluate performance, but when possible, use measures that are quantifiable (for example, number of customer complaints, as in Luanne’s situation). Not everything can be measured with numbers, nor should it be. A good way to measure non-quantifiable behaviors is using a Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale (also called a BARS), where the manager matches an employee’s observed behaviors to descriptions of poor or outstanding behaviors for a given task or job duty.
  • Remember that performance feedback can have legal implications.
    If you’re sued for wrongful termination or illegal discrimination due to a firing or disciplinary action, you’ve got a much better defense when you document a personnel action based on specific, unacceptable behaviors rather than a “poor attitude.”
  • All of this goes for “good” attitudes as well!
    Telling an employee that he has a “great attitude” isn’t giving him much in the way of useful feedback. It’s like when someone says “thank you,” but you have no idea what you’re being thanked for. Instead, describe behaviors. For example, “Jake, I’ve observed several occasions where customers bought a few extra items because you were friendly and helpful, really listened to what they said, and tactfully responded to concerns or problems they were having.” This reinforces Jake’s outstanding behaviors much more so than a general statement about his “great attitude.”

If you stop talking about attitudes in the workplace, and start talking about what you can actually observe and measure, you’ll minimize the “spray the skunk” syndrome and instead provide the constructive feedback that your employees really need to hear.

--- Kelly Mollica, The Centre Group
Posted: 7/5/2012 1:06:59 PM | with 0 comments

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