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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 33, No. 13 * July 2, 2001

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Work Groups With An Attitude

This is an article about how work groups develop “an attitude.” Certainly as managers we are familiar with individuals whose demeanor and behavior at work comes to be recognized and associated with that person.

Some employees are positive in their outlook, in their desire to take on new challenges, in their spectacular customer service and in their technical skills. These are the people with the attitude of high competence, high productivity and great contribution to the organization. These are the individuals we wish we could clone.

Then, of course, there are people who contribute to the job security of many HR staff members by demonstrating attitudes toward performance and behavior that drive others away. These employees are also major contributors to the growing interest in early retirement displayed by many managers! They are frequently “edge walkers,” in the sense that they are close to repeated disciplinary actions, close to insubordination in their relations with supervisors and close to unsatisfactory in performance evaluations.

They seek to avoid assignments, rather than seek out new opportunities. They drain a manager’s energy and consume inordinate amounts of time. That is, of course, when they show up for work in the first place. Repeated, unscheduled absences seem to be an inherent “marker” of how these employees approach work.

Finally, such a “person of supervisory challenge” will seek out others to infect with the virus of negative attitude and behavior … others with whom he or she can commiserate, whine and grouse.

Frequently, the old cliché of “like attracting like” kicks in, and there is born employee groups “with attitudes.” On the “dark side of the Force” are sections, or work units where the employees feel ignored, poorly treated or oppressed.

Over time, the group takes on an attitude that is transmitted to the public and other colleagues whether the members of the group realize it or intend it. Such groups deliver public service as though every individual is having a “bad hair day.”

Members of the public leave an encounter with such a group feeling relieved they have survived, powerless that they cannot change the behavior they have just encountered and glad they may not have to deal with this group again … until the next permit, license, tax payment, job application, etc.

They have just seen the worst folklore impression of government employees confirmed. The same is true when other employees have to deal with such a group. With a reputation for finding obstacles, communicating poorly and sour demeanors, this group will be avoided at all costs.

This causes managers in other areas to develop “work arounds” — ways to get answers they need or problems solved even if it means going outside of the rules. It will be better to get the job done and seek forgiveness later rather than deal with the work group with the attitude.

When this group is a central service provider such as purchasing, HR, attorneys, budget or the county or city manager’s office, the impact can infect the entire organization with illnesses such as paralysis, frustration, delay and failure to perform.

Then, there is the joy of receiving great service from a work group full of people who actually seem to care about the customer as a person and the project involved. The advice and actions of this kind of group is timely, rendered with confidence, supported by management, and offered with respect and understanding.

The people in this work group put themselves in the customers’ shoes. Even if their responses are not what the customer wishes to hear, the bad news is delivered with tact, with an explanation and with advice about alternatives. The customer leaves feeling that these people know what they are doing. They represented the county and the county officials very well!

What can a manager do to change the behavior of the first group and maintain the positive morale and approach of the second group? Here are some hints.

The first is to acknowledge that today’s situation — good or bad — didn’t just happen by itself. Managers can have great effects on the attitudes and actions of those they supervise. The HR Doctor’s favorite maxim, applicable here just as it is in so many areas of our personal and professional lives, is “don’t walk by something wrong.”

At the first sign of especially great performance in the work group, managers should be there with loud praise and a clear sense that the work done, the citizen’s compliment, etc. has been heard and recognized. The group is serving the agency well and the manager is very proud.

In the case of the “ugly attitude” group, the manager should “arrive at the scene” right away and make sure every member of the group understands expectations, and that the immediate supervisor, in particular, knows what is to occur. The immediate supervisor is the essential key to improving negative attitudes.

If the supervisor is “walking by,” find out why. Does the supervisor lack the training he or she needs? Does the group intimidate the supervisor? Are the necessary resources, equipment, material, or other tools for success not present? Perhaps the expectations are unrealistic? If any of these characteristics are present, entreat the manager to change the situation.

Sometimes the “treatment plan” must involve a change in leadership. The substitution of a new, experienced and clearly supported supervisor is needed to affect the group’s behavior — especially if the former supervisor’s “walking by” behavior has been contributing to the situation. It may also be necessary to break up the clique by reassignment or the hiring of new employees. However, that action alone may only result in the new person falling victim to the negative influence of the group. The work group with an attitude generally requires a multi-part treatment.

Another component of the treatment plan may be to recognize that some or all of the people in the group may not like the group’s “persona.” Sometimes a retreat involving the entire group and an outside facilitator can set the stage for an “attitude transplant.”

At a minimum, it will give the manager some additional insight into what might be going on in the group. It will also be an event of such an unusual nature that the overall message of the need for change will be reinforced.

An interesting phenomenon is present in the groups with good, bad or ugly attitudes. The group’s attitude will be transplanted into the brains of new hires. It will affect, or perhaps, infect the new person’s behavior.

A new employee is acutely sensitive to, and is searching for, a roadmap to management expectations. The roadmap will be delivered either by a proactive manager and through a solid orientation program or through the informal work relationships with colleagues.

In a strong, positive performing group, the newcomer is quickly made aware of the group’s philosophy, the manager’s support and the work expectations shared in the group.

A person with a bad attitude is self-censored to change, or quickly stands out as an anomalous member of the team. The manager, who is also the coach and mentor, has an opportunity to change behavior by early intervention. Generally, the positive work group itself will be a catalyst in the development of another great team member!

Finally, the need for close collaboration between HR and the manager is essential. Often, when a manager challenges a work group, the defense shields will go up. The group adopts a passive aggressive attitude — if they didn’t have one to begin with — to see if the manager is serious and “walks the walk.” In a group of long serving employees, the approach will be to try to wait out the storm.

Group members may also attempt to “call the manager’s mother” in the form of filing grievances, falsely alleging discrimination, calling elected officials, etc. HR will have to be at the manager’s right hand, offering advice, helping reinforce positive messages and documentation and, if necessary, supporting disciplinary actions.

In any campaign to improve work group attitudes, HR and the managers need to be a team of two. Attitudes can change for the better, to the benefit of the employees, the agency and the customers. However, this won’t happen by itself. Consistency, shared expectations, “walking the walk,” and celebrating successes can make the difference. HR can be, and must be, a source of timely, proactive support for the brave manager stepping up to the plate!

The HR Doctor wishes you a positive attitude!


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