Attitude is a job skill — Train for it!

by Gregory Lay

“Potential worker with Bad Attitude seeks extremely foolish or incredibly tolerant employer for gainful employment.”

You’ve never read that on a resume, yet every organization manages to hire a few employees with a who should have advertised themselves just like that.

Managers are advised to “Hire for attitude; train for skill.” It’s a good theory, yet a bitter chorus of whining, griping, moaning and groaning attests that something’s gone awry:

  • We expected a positive attitude because the new hire promised they had one.
  • Their skills were so impressive, we figured how bad could their attitude be?
  • The ‘honeymoon’ ended and old negativity re-emerged.
  • The boss models a Bad Attitude and everybody else follows.
  • One person’s ‘constructive criticism’ is another person’s Bad Attitude.
  • Health problems, personal problems, and unexpected circumstances worsen attitudes.

Even if knowing the source of the attitude improves understanding, it doesn’t solve the problem. A Bad Attitude about the job can cause more damage than not knowing how to do the job.

Discipline doesn’t improve attitude

Attitude building is mostly an interactive relationship challenge. A person with a Bad Attitude needs helpful colleagues to make them feel safe and accepted. No disciplinary action will change a Bad Attitude. Most discipline can, at best, cause a temporary behavioral image, but not a true correction in attitude. Training is often given the job of fixing a Bad Attitude, but that’s a long-term challenge. Never waste time and money sending a person with a Bad Attitude to a one-day teamwork seminar. Strategy for an employee with poor behavior skills is only a slight variation on the strategy for poor job skills: a training program with defined skill objectives and constant positive reinforcement – even more reinforcement than you’d supply for skill development.

When a job skill is practiced until the employee is deemed ‘competent,’ we call that a successful training. Good Attitude is also a job skill to be consciously practiced until competence is achieved.

A parent’s goal is to teach their child to become competent in manners, respect, and taking out the garbage. The workplace manager is a substitute ‘parent’ of a grown-up child with the same lessons to teach, using adult learning techniques.

To teach a skill, we show examples of the desired result. We set a standard and describe rewards when the job is done right and consequences when the standard isn’t met. In training for attitude, we often overlook the standard-setting conversation with the mistaken assumption that our standards are known and accepted by all. For a person operating in negativity, however, the apparent standards really aren’t seen the same. And they can’t start learning something they don’t even see.

Defective attitude isn’t a defective person

Some skill trainers argue that attitude isn’t even an appropriate target for training, and complain when managers send employees with a ‘broken’ attitude to be ‘fixed.’ To repair a gap in a technical skill, we train. But instead of going to work on a gap in attitude, some would rather cast it as a character defect. Complaining about an employee’s Bad Attitude is responding to the problem with exactly the attitude we’re complaining about!

A Positive Attitude thrives on trust, opportunity, commitment, and team involvement. Those same ingredients encourage and nurture a negative person when they are still in the grasp of negativity. But if we won’t see past their negativity to offer help, we never get the reward of an improved attitude.

Can you trust a negative person?

The key to successfully establishing trust is consistent positive reinforcement. If the first few trusting efforts aren’t immediately rewarded by a satisfying change in behavior, it doesn’t justify a surrender to mistrust. By choosing to continue to value every employee, we demonstrate the power of positivity.

Failing to extend an opportunity to a person with a Bad Attitude just reinforces their negativity. We know how much it costs to replace an employee, so we commit to job skill training; the same commitment will pay dividends with attitude building. A Bad Attitude alone doesn’t cause the damage – it’s the response of others that turns a Bad Attitude into a permanent deficit.

One good attitude finds another

Smart trainers anchor skills by having the employee teach it while they’re still learning it, knowing that’s the most effective learning tool. When an employee consciously sets an example in one Positive Attitude, that attitude spreads not just to other people, but to their other behaviors.

A trainer’s role is to elevate each employee to competence. If hiring for attitude is a good idea, then training for attitude is a great one! For people who didn’t learn their behavior patterns from a positive example, operating with a Good Attitude is no more automatic than operating a new piece of equipment. It’s a skill that can be learned.

Dealing with a Bad Attitude is no fun, while learning is fun. Learning leaders take pride in creativity, and training for attitude is an exercise in creativity. It is creative to create a space where a negative person may explore the rewards of showing their positive side.

Create a strategic training plan for every employee that includes building and supporting their Positive Attitude!

Practice These Positive Attitude Skill-Builders

Exercises to teach, mentor, reinforce, and apply in building proficiency at showing a Positive Attitude:

    1. Say a cheerful “Good Morning” to everybody.
    2. Tell colleagues when you appreciate their help.
    3. Ask a colleague what they need… and help them get it.
    4. Smile while listening and talking.
    5. Speak well of your employer.
    6. Take a proposed solution to the boss with every problem.
    7. Tell the boss about something good that a colleague has done.
    8. Choose not to gossip — or listen to gossip.
    9. Accept assignments with a smile, saying, “I’ll be happy to!”
    10. Make somebody feel better daily.
    11. Volunteer for a job that needs doing.
    12. Offer sincere congratulations when others have a success.

What else do you observe that demonstrates a Good Attitude? Make a note of it, and then make a skill of it — remembering that the one who teaches it, learns it best!

Gregory Lay speaks and writes about workplace solutions. Contact him at Permission is usually granted to reproduce this article in its entirety in organizational publications, with credit to the author.

(c) 2009 Heartily Working