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Making Attitude Adjustments

By Jeff Mowatt |

Not long ago, if a customer service employee fouled-up, he or she was warned, then if improvements didn't happen, was shown the door. In today's workplace however, where it's so difficult just maintaining staffing levels, dismissal doesn't really fix the problem – it just changes the problem.

That means it's more important than ever for managers to be able to confront unacceptable employee behaviors without causing the person to simply walk out and get a job elsewhere.  Next time one of your frontline employees needs an attitude adjustment, consider how this teacher handles a surly student ...

Imagine you are a twelve year old who hates school. You despise it so much that you can hardly wait till you're old enough to drop out. It's late one Friday afternoon and you're stuck in math class gazing out the window at the beautiful day, counting the minutes until the bell rings and the weekend starts. Your reverie is suddenly interrupted by the sound of your teacher's voice. He's in the middle of issuing a three-page homework assignment due on Monday. You and several other students start groaning. He looks directly at you and says in a low, serious voice, "I'd like to speak to you in the hallway—right now."

Now, you're embarrassed and you're probably angry. Mostly you're scared about what's next. Then it happens.

Looking you square in the eye in the deserted hallway the teacher says, "I've been watching you lately and I've noticed that you have real leadership potential. When you act a certain way, other students watch you and start doing the same thing. The problem is that when I give a homework assignment, you start rolling your eyes and saying, 'Oh, no! Do we have to do this?' Other students watch you and start doing the same thing. That makes my job harder. I wonder if you could do me a favour? Next time I give a homework assignment, could you just do nothing? It will help me, and I also think it will help you because with your leadership abilities you could go a long way in life. Thanks. Let's go back inside the class."

Not a bad way of handling a problem student, in theory at least. But as Paul Harvey would say, "That's not the rest of the story." The rest of the story is that the twelve-year-old was me.

I hated school so much that I counted the days until I was old enough to drop out. I remember the afternoon in Varsity Acres Elementary math class when my teacher, Mr. McCullough, gave us that homework assignment. I was trying to look cool as I was being marched into the hallway. But I was scared. When Mr. McCullough gave me that two-minute talk, however, it changed my life.

Here was a teacher telling me I could be a leader and showing me a simple way I could make it happen. My parents had always encouraged me and told me I had potential—but they were only my parents. At twelve years old, what do your parents know? I took Mr. McCullough's advice, and it changed everything. From that day forward, I got along better with teachers and, not surprisingly, received better grades. I ended up staying in school because Mr. McCullough knew how to change a cynical kid's attitude. I've thought about that conversation many times since then and realized as I began studying frontline employee motivation, that he did two things particularly well...

Two keys to corrective feedback
First, he focused on behaviour, not attitude. In other words, it doesn't do much good for a manager to tell employees that they are not friendly enough with customers. Friendliness is an attitude. The employee thinks, "I am friendly! You're being unfair." Instead, a supervisor would get better results by focusing on observable behaviour. The supervisor might say, "The customer walked in. You avoided making eye contact until she asked you a question. Then you frowned as you responded." That's observable behaviour. No one can argue the facts. That leads us to a second reason Mr. McCullough's approach worked.

He gave a positive direction. He told me exactly the behaviour change that needed to be made ("Next time I give a homework assignment, could you just do nothing?") In the case of an unfriendly employee, we might say, "The expectation here is that within ten seconds of a customer walking in the door you are expected to smile enough to show teeth and greet them." In other words, rather than saying you need to be more friendly, explain exactly what that looks like. Add to that your underlying belief in the potential of the employee and you could end up making a significant impact not only on your company but also upon the lives of your employees. Maybe, like me, they'll not only improve their behavior, they'll also remember fondly what you said decades later.

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