It’s no secret the skilled trades are experiencing a skills shortage. This problem has been highlighted, discussed, examined and dissected extensively. Several solutions have emerged, and much progress had been made. Although still a big problem for the foreseeable future, the skills shortage is not as bad as it would have been.
But what about the attitude shortage? This is a serious problem, but it’s not getting the same open attention. It does keep managers up at night, however.
Consider these actual examples:
- A senior manager of a mid-sized testing firm did an onsite visit. Upon arriving, he found the crew wasn’t working. Their problem? They didn’t want to haul tools and equipment down eight flights of stairs. They were adamant about refusing to do it, even after the manager explained it was necessary and he needed them to man up and just do it. He hauled the tools and equipment himself.
- A senior engineer with total project responsibility repeatedly encounters substandard work performed by junior engineers. When he tries to explain the deficiencies and the corrective actions needed, they become inattentive and do things such as sending text messages while he’s talking. He takes offense at this, and also feels frustrated. Sometimes, his exasperation gets the best of him, and he loudly complains to the offenders in language he doesn’t use around his family. The company’s response to complaints about his outbursts is to send him to diversity training. The inattentive, error-prone junior engineers receive no penalty for their behavior.
- The work of a particular Journeyman electrician fails to meet the company’s standards of “good workmanship.” When his foreman or another crew member points out the poor workmanship, his response is, “It’s good enough” or “Nobody is going to see it so it doesn’t matter.”
- At a manufacturing plant, operators are frequently engrossed in personal phone calls. The production superintendent won’t risk offending the “workers” by asking them to do their jobs instead of chat away on the phone because it’s hard to find qualified operators. His reasoning is that because production is highly automated he mainly just needs people present in case of a problem. Even though tolerance of this unprofessional workplace behavior is a double standard that affects the morale of the maintenance department, the plant engineer can’t do anything about it.
- At a firm that handles sensitive information, employees routinely leave their computers logged in when they are away from their desks. Whether they are out for lunch or away at a meeting, their machines stay logged in. The company’s response to the office manager’s policing of this was to note in her annual review that she’s “confrontational” and “has problems getting along with others.” Her “confrontations” consisted of logging out unattended computers and leaving a note about cybersecurity on that person’s desk.
- A new maintenance manager noticed two things about the maintenance department. One was that the maintenance staff was highly trained and experienced. The other was they made what he considered “silly” or “senior moment” mistakes. His solution was to develop a couple of checklists as starting points and then have the maintenance people “fix whatever needs fixing” so the list is useful and helpful. In this case, there wasn’t an attitude shortage. But there could have been one if he’d gone about this the wrong way an inadvertently implied these seasoned pros weren’t up to snuff.
The above examples illustrate different ways an attitude shortage makes itself felt. It’s not something to treat trivially. You need to handle it correctly. Here are some do’s and don’ts that will probably work for you. (Make a checklist for your particular situation!).
- Provide honest feedback to those who display poor attitudes. Do this in a way that is respectful of the person, and be clear about what is expected.
- Accept honest feedback. Those with poor attitudes often provide you with the information you need to help them change those attitudes. Sometimes, the mere act of listening kick-starts the good attitude growth process.
- Teach your good workers how to have a positive influence on those with poor attitudes. This does not mean teach them how to accept the poor attitude. It means teach them how to help the person with the poor attitude improve. For example, they should understand positive reinforcement and the use of “suggestions” rather than criticism. Anything negative from them just feeds the negativity of those with bad attitudes, and they need to understand this.
- Create checklists for work processes. Effective checklists are created by those who will use them; this is how you get buy-in. That buy-in also has a positive effect on attitude.
- Encourage an esprit de corps. When people feel like they are part of a team that is doing something important, they tend to give their all.
- Encourage people to talk about whatever issues are problematic and seek a mutually acceptable solution.
- Show personal leadership. Lead by example.
- Look for what’s good. Reward what’s good.
- Let good workers berate those with poor attitudes. This creates a self-reinforcing poor attitude problem. But don’t pound the nail that sticks up; coach the good workers on how to properly address both the poor attitude.
- Coddle those with poor attitudes. If workers get their feelings by honest feedback that’s given in a respectful manner, they need to raise their game. Have adult expectations and hold them to those. There’s no trophy for just showing up.
- Show any tolerance for poor attitudes toward safety. Too much is at risk.
- Keep people who keep a poor attitude. Despite your best efforts, some people just cannot or will not reach maturity. Perhaps another employer can do a better job of attitude coaching; ensure your policies have a progressive warning/discipline system that leads to termination.
With good planning, good policies, and good examples, you can ensure your firm doesn’t suffer from a good attitude shortage. Unfortunately, you will have to work at the problem unless yours is one of lucky few without such a shortage. If you have a good attitude, you’re already stepping up to the challenge.