Coaching employees with a negative attitude

We’ve all been there right? Having the worst day of your life while stuck at work, and it drags on and on, and next thing you know, you’re the office curmudgeon with a bad attitude. Some people are difficult to work with. It’s true, but it happens to all of us, and while it’s frustrating and easy to ignore such co-workers—better to just get on with your day—there’s some value in a little attitude coaching.

Learning to handle a bad attitude is a valuable skill with applications at work and in socially tense situations. When tempers flare and people become irrational, it’s good to know how to de-escalate, listen, and make the best of an uneasy situation. Coaching an employee with a negative attitude is just a longer, more consistent use of that skill.

In this post, we’ll talk about attitude coaching and what it looks like when done well. This won’t be an overview of conflict resolution, because attitude problems go beyond resolving a singular conflict. Instead, we’ll talk about how to navigate the difficult conversations required to respectfully and effectively combat a poor attitude.

Negative attitude vs. negative employee

Everybody sees the world differently. It’s bizarre and confusing, but it’s also what makes life interesting. More often than not, bad attitudes are the result of a misunderstanding or difference of opinion. Sometimes it’s only a desire to be truly seen and heard, something many companies overlook in the scramble for efficiency.

The first and most important coaching skill is to find gaps in understanding/agreement, and the only way to achieve that is to create the conditions for a frank, open discussion.

While coaching aims to target the root cause of negative behavior and improve it, employees need to know that it’s also unacceptable and will not be tolerated at work. Left unaddressed, toxic employees can threaten the well-being of everyone around them and even the company culture at large.

Employees in need of coaching need to know that if they can’t (or won’t) improve, their job role may need to change significantly. They may even lose it.

Traits of a great coach

Patience and humility are your greatest assets during coaching: Patience helps you recognize the specific behaviors that have a negative impact on employee performance, and humility lets you both give and accept constructive feedback. Overconfidence, on the other hand, can blind you into thinking you’re right just because you’re in a coaching position.

Knowing when and what to address is key. Dressing someone down in front of the entire team is almost always a bad idea, as is being overly critical to the point of nitpicking.

Also, it goes without saying, but maintaining composure is a must. Nobody likes taking personal development tips from a hothead.

Cool-headed coaching sessions


Sometimes a listening ear is all you need to get through a bad day. But what do you say when you’re the one listening? After they’ve vented about their troubles and frustrations, how can you redirect the conversation toward having a positive attitude?

According to the DEAL method—Harvard Law’s tips for addressing conflict during negotiation—start by diagnosing the problem:

  • Diagnose. Try to understand where a person’s motivations come from. If they’re upset about work, is it because they feel misled or mistreated? Are their concerns legitimate and well thought out, or are they just yelling at some nebulous cloud of authority?

  • Empathize. Listening to concerns is helpful, but the strongest aid is letting them know you see why they’re frustrated. Assuming their complaint is founded in reality, it will probably bother you a little too. Tell them. Explain that some things aren’t fair and this is one of them. You don’t have to take their side, but try not to oppose them either.

  • Ask. Digging is how you build a roadmap to move forward. This means gaining more detail about their concerns and, more importantly, asking how they would solve them on their own terms.

  • Label the threat. Asking open-ended questions about someone’s concerns can send a conversation on all sorts of tangents if you’re not careful. Specify the issue so you can stay focused on solving it, not get distracted by related, unsolvable issues.

Will this method cure all bad employee behavior? Probably not. A rare few people have no interest at all in reaching a solution, at which point it’s worth asking them how they want to move forward. It may be that their role isn’t a good fit, though not usually.

Leading by example

Difficult employees don’t always have a frame of reference for behaving the right way (think school bullies who come home to negligent or angry parents). For these troubled souls, a strong and cool-headed leader can become a major source of inspiration.

Awesome bosses make good behavior a practical option. Where someone may only recognize confrontational models of problem-solving, a good boss demonstrates that other ways of thinking can be just as effective (if not more so).

That’s why you gotta keep your composure at all costs. Don’t let someone else’s negative attitude override your capacity for reason and support. If a team member needs reprimanding, get behind a closed door first.

For those challenging cases

Some people just don’t quit. They can be hard to understand and even harder to work with on attitude problems, like a bucking bronco. If you can coach someone like this, consider yourself an expert.

For these people, you need to turn your empathy up to 11, and no, that doesn’t mean grinning the whole time like you’re watching a lab rat. Give them every chance to speak and expect a few blow-ups before getting the chance to offer advice. They blow off a lot of steam and they usually aren’t great candidates for people-facing positions like customer service or management—not yet at least.

I’ll be honest, there aren’t many resources out there for coaching chronically bad attitudes. You’ll have to get creative. Consider a daily check-in asking them for what they plan to work on. Ask for their insights on how to deal with difficult people. Recommend a video from YouTube that helped you personally. Maybe even connect with them on social media.

One method for boosting employee engagement is to encourage creativity. Give your teams a chance to share things they’re proud of so they feel seen for who they really are.

Find your optimism

Above all, try to see the end from the beginning. If the current arrangement just isn’t working out, brainstorm with them to uncover a more suitable role for the future.

There is a solution to an employee’s bad attitude, and it doesn’t have to involve termination or even disciplinary action. Exercise the same good attitude you expect of your employees and be optimistic about solving the problem.

Successful attitude coaching creates a workplace culture that values individuality. It’s the kind of place we all deserve to work, and it’s worth building.