The bad attitude work myth

Bad Attitude

Unless you’re a total sniveling suck-up, chances are you’ve been told you have a ‘bad attitude’ at work once or twice in your career. This is a concept most people seem to forget: ‘attitude’ is not a fixed characteristic, and henceforth ‘bad attitude’ cannot be either. Let’s do a quick example here: you can be a totally jolly person. So, in that case, you have a ‘good attitude.’ Then someone cuts you off in traffic. You go nuts. In this case, you have a ‘bad attitude.’ You’re still the same person, but your attitude fluctuates contextually by situation. In other words, you’re normal.

I’ve written about this probably 93,178 times, but here’s the basic deal with work. We want it to be a logical place. That’s why we love us some process. However, work is populated by human beings. As a result of that fact, work is an emotional place. We often remove emotion and psychology from discussions about work in the name of ‘professionalism,’ which is both comical and infuriating in equal measure.

This is the bad attitude myth in a nutshell, but we’ll dive a little deeper.

The bad attitude myth and the bad employee myth

I’m about to blow your mind, so get ready.

I don’t actually think there is such a thing as a “bad employee.”

I’ve told this to people at bars and cocktail parties and oftentimes they stare at me as if I said it in Chinese. I kind of understand why they would do that.

Here’s the deal, though: despite how busy we all think we are, there are real issues at many companies in terms of what, exactly, people do all day. (Here’s more evidence to that point.) A lot of times, jobs are created in a rush to fill headcount or fill some need that a hiring manager keeps bellowing about. Job role often has poor — or no — context. You can argue that many jobs probably don’t even need to exist. At some level, we’re all digital paper-pushers.

In a set-up like this, it’s impossible to be a ‘bad employee.’ If your job doesn’t really need to exist, how can you be bad at it? Just by showing up, you’re providing a value-add. That is Tier 1.

Tier 2 is that, again, people are not fixed in a specific way. A person can be a drag on one team, then transition to a new team or manager and become a superstar. This stuff is actually fairly common.

In short: there’s no such thing as a ‘bad employee.’ There is a ‘person with skills in the wrong fit.’

Yes, there are assholes in the world. There are people who skate on doing their work. There are jerks. Many of these people become CEOs, oddly enough.

But there are not ‘bad employees.’ It’s all about contextual fit. Jobs are like real estate in that way.

And much like there aren’t ‘bad employees,’ there isn’t really ‘bad attitude.’

How we deal with bad attitude

This is where the wheels fall right off the bus. Most managers are not very good at their jobs. If you secretly know you’re not very good at your job, you begin to view new ideas as a threat to your perch. We’ve all had managers like this. It’s part of the seven circles of managerial hell.


A lot of times, a manager will semi-invent the idea that an employee has a ‘bad attitude’ because he/she fears that employee. Maybe the employee has good ideas, or seems too smart. So, intelligence — which theoretically a workplace should value — becomes ‘a bad attitude’ and (drum roll) it’s time for a performance improvement plan!

If you’ve ever been on one — I have — you know the word ‘improvement’ doesn’t matter. It’s all about getting you out the door.

As Liz Ryan notes in this article about employees with supposed attitude problems:

It’s a learning experience for the supervisor, but only if they are willing to learn! Fear makes it hard for supervisors to be open to learning. They fear that if they are not the top dog, they are nothing. They’re embarrassed that an employee isn’t listening to them or has his or her own ideas.


The same type of manager who thinks ‘intelligence’ is now a ‘bad attitude’ is also a type of manager who believes hierarchy is everything. In reality, hierarchy is the lowest form of respect in an office. And, as Ryan notes in the same article:

The first thing every supervisor must learn is that just being the supervisor doesn’t make you right. It doesn’t make you smarter or more capable than anyone else. You can tell your supervisory teammates a few stories about times when you felt vulnerable or exposed and had to manage those feelings.

People often confuse ‘formal power’ and ‘he/she knows what’s best,’ yes.

Now look, I’m not advocating for you to go in and sass your boss every day. That doesn’t make sense either. But it’s a brutal cycle out there.

My bad attitude story

Pretty much every boss I’ve ever had thought I had a bad attitude. Go read 2-3 posts on this blog. You’ll be able to figure out why.

I never did — do? — a very good job managing up in various roles. I was always the bad attitude kid. I caught a few promotions and some compensation bumps along the way, but the bad attitude rep is hard to shake. On recommendations, hiring managers always ask for one negative. I always get ‘Well, he has a bit of a bad attitude.’

In reality, I sometimes have a bad attitude. It’s not a fixed state of affairs. It’s not for anyone. But when shit is stupid and managers are target-chasing like a bunch of buffoons, yea, I’ll call it out now and again. Does that mean I have a bad attitude, or does that mean I’m a person with observations and ideas? You make that call. If ‘professionalism’ is out of your mouth within six words, you and I probably aren’t cosmically aligned.

Any other bad attitude observations?

This is near and dear to my heart, so if you have any feedback, thoughts, or observations, let me know. They can be from your own career or people you’ve worked with. Heck, even people you’ve managed. Let ‘er rip.

Ted Bauer


  1. I was recently referred to as a ‘little woman with a chip on her shoulder’ by a jackhole CEO. Aka — bad attitude. Honestly, I’ll take that moniker, which basically translates into ‘assertive, confident and driven.’ That’s what was required to get stuff done in all of the tech companies I’ve worked for.

    It’s not a pretty work environment. You can either stay authentic or become a lemming, or get trampled in the mad rush to the middle (otherwise known as be a C player where it’s presumed to be safe).

    I chose the former. Always will.

    • I was on a conference call a few days ago with a dude who sounded like the teacher in Charlie Brown. He runs some HR software company and he must have used the phrase “A-Player” 59 times. By Number 6, it was getting a bit much. The problem is, most “A-Players” to managers are really just safe C-Players who maybe make them look better (or maybe just don’t rock the yacht). It’s a shitty system.

  2. Ted – I feel like you wrote this article based on my experiences. As I female I’ve had to be tough at times which has won me the label “bad attitude” a few times. I’ve been given this label repeatedly by the same manager every time he feels threatened or when I throw out a suggestion that isn’t his. It sucks to get labeled like this, but worth it if it means I’m not getting sucked into his game.

  3. I would bet good money that “bad attitude” is almost always a direct manifestation of how an employee is made to feel by the people around them (bosses, co-workers) in their organization. If so, I definitely think “bad attitude” is also directly related to whether you feel like your job (and your boss and your boss’ boss) puts you in a position to succeed and whether workloads, standards, expectations, professionalism and even things like punctuality are measured equitably among a team or office culture.

    If I somehow end up with most of the work on my team, do a good job at it, make other people look good in the process and am somehow rewarded for the quality of my work with even more work, that’s total bullshit. And then I get to watch other people skate on 1 out of 10 effort most days while working the absolute minimum necessary to do their job, how is that supposed to make you feel?

    “Bad attitudes” or being “gruff” or “surly” or “cynical” is really just code language for “that guy is unhappy.” And more than attitudes, what these constructs really are is defense mechanisms to give people a fighting chance at surviving in dysfunctional organizations and working for managers that have their head up their ass. The real issue is, why aren’t more people in organizations asking that person with the “bad attitude” how to fix things instead of going directly to the narcissists, the martyrs, the protagonists and the show horses for more validation of how good things are in their shop. Oh, right, but I’ve got the attitude problem, though. (rolls eyes)

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