I’ve heard it said that when dealing with a problem, don’t get into personalities.  Well, it’s hard not to do that when you are confronted by the effects of an employee’s bad attitude.

A former CEO once commented that there are only three ways to make a basic, fundamental change in a person’s attitude: psychotherapy, religious conversion and brain surgery.  If he was right, there aren’t many managers around who are qualified to apply any of these.

If you are managing an employee with a “toxic attitude,” trying to fix it will do no good.  The best way to deal with this employee is to stop targeting the attitude and focus on the specific behaviors that are irritating you and your colleagues.

What’s a Bad Attitude?

When you think about it, a bad attitude is just a judgment made by one person about another person based on what that individual says and does.  It’s a label slapped on another person’s behavior when someone else doesn’t like that behavior.

But rather than using judgments and labels, the trick to solving attitude problems is to focus on objective facts. For example, you really never know for sure what kind of attitude an employee took with a customer unless you were there. What you do know is that a customer complained about being treated rudely.

Even when you witness what you consider to be a bad attitude, you should always focus on the behavior—what this person said or did—not the attitude.

“But it isn’t just what he said,” you argue. “It’s the way he said it. It’s his tone of voice, and facial expression, and mannerisms and demeanor.” OK, let’s agree that the cause of the tactless behavior really is some deep-seated attitudinal deficiency. A person’s core attitudes are pretty well fixed by the time he’s 3 years old. There’s not much you can do about that now.

What you can do, to start, is when you feel the need to confront someone who is in need of an attitude adjustment, never use the word “attitude.” It’s futile. Any person with a genuinely vile attitude has probably had that fact pointed out to him so many times that he’s anesthetized to it. Raising the attitude issue one more time will undoubtedly be unproductive.

Instead, get specific. Is the person egotistical and credit-grabbing? Does she spend too much time socializing? Does he pout or sulk when he doesn’t get his way? Or is she rude, surly and inconsiderate? All these behaviors are different, but all of them are commonly slapped with the “attitude problem” label.

Start by narrowing the issue to the specific problem or concern that’s bugging you. Then write down the actual behaviors and actions—the evidence that the person is behaving in an unacceptable way.