Have you ever been told you have a “bad attitude?


Have you ever told someone else that?

There’s a problem with using those words, and that problem doesn’t seem to be common knowledge for managers these days. But it is common sense.

Managers get it quickly when I share this story from my own early experience.

During sixth grade I was sent to the principal (the only time EVER) for “arguing” with my teacher. She’d been trying to pound an abstract concept into our heads, and my (typical) 12-year-old brain was stuck in concrete mode that day.

Of course, I was humiliated. When my parents came home from the next parent-teacher conference to tell me I’d been labeled “argumentative in class” the message about being seen and not heard was cemented.

Fast forward a year. In seventh grade I entered middle school and was put on the accelerated math and science track. I liked my teachers, did my homework, and got high marks on every assignment and test. And I was quiet.

A new feature of the grading system in middle school had the teachers give us a “conduct” number between one and three, in addition to a letter grade.

When our first term grades came out, I was horrified to receive an A-2 from my algebra teacher. My studious and demure (quiet!) behavior was netting me an A-1 in every other class.

I nervously approached her to ask about it, and was informed simply and tersely that I had “a bad attitude.”

I walked back to my desk shocked and confused. I had to process it emotionally before I could begin thinking about what it meant. It took me a long time to realize that the problem might actually be what I was NOT doing – which was, of course, participating verbally in class.

The problems with telling someone they have a “bad attitude” are

  1. You have no idea what’s actually going on in their head,
  2. It’s a charged phrase that will immediately put them in defensive mode, and
  3. Most importantly, you leave them with no idea what to do about it.

How do you “know” they have a bad attitude to begin with?

From their observable behavior, right? Then why not focus on that?

If you describe to someone a specific behavior they’ve exhibited, they know exactly what they should do differently. My seventh grade teacher could have spared me a lot of anguish by just saying I needed to participate more.

Common sense for all of us.

If you’re a manager, I hope you’ll think of it when you need to give feedback to a team member.

If you ever receive “bad attitude” feedback, don’t waste time ruminating on what it might mean. Get through your natural defensive reaction as quickly as possible so you can ask for examples and get at the behaviors you need to focus on changing.

(That seventh grade algebra teacher was young. I hope she eventually learned to do better. I’m still working hard to forgive that 12-year-old girl for doing the best she could at the time.)

Lorri Anderson

Lorri Anderson

Lorri Anderson is an expert consultant to businesses and a powerful coach to individuals. After a long and rich career as a strategic HR executive, she is driven to give back by changing the Human Experience in today’s workplaces, one business or human at a time.

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