Sweeten The Bad Apple On Your Team

You know what they say about one bad apple? Well, it's true. Use this tactic to stop him or her from spoiling the whole bunch.
September 09, 2013

I’ve been getting a lot of reader emails about the pervasiveness of negativity in the workplace. I can understand where people are coming from. After all, the business world is still reeling from the effects of the recession, and many employees are overworked, frustrated and stressed out. 

As an owner or manager, perhaps you have a mostly terrific team made up of individuals who are upbeat, motivated and dedicated to doing the best job possible. But there’s one person who is souring the group with her bad attitude. She doesn’t get along with anyone and complains about everything, and group morale and job satisfaction is suffering as a result. 

According to a study by Will Felps, associate professor of organization and personnel management at Rotterdam School of Management, the behaviors of one negative group member can have a powerful, detrimental influence on an entire team. Felps found that groups with bad apples performed 30 to 40 percent worse than groups without a bad apple. The ability to get along, share work and collaborate significantly dropped in groups with a bad apple, as other team members took on the bad apple’s characteristics.

You must neutralize your bad apple before she destroys your group’s culture—and you must do so without appearing to single her out. Otherwise, she may feel attacked and picked on, and her level of antagonism may reach a new high, and hit a level where she’ll be unlikely to make the necessary behavioral changes. 

Focus On The Bunch

My friend Marshall Goldsmith, author of Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, and How to Get it Back if You Lose It, shares a wonderful tip. He suggests that you work on improving team behavior across the board by having each team member ask every other member a simple question: “In the future, how can I do a great job of helping our team demonstrate effective teamwork?” This will foster healthy dialogue, encouraging people to stay positive and focused in their replies to other team members. Listen to your people, learn and express gratitude for the feedback.

Then in one-on-one meetings, have each employee discuss with you what he or she has learned from the other team members. As the team leader, after hearing the suggestions from this person's co-workers, share your ideas. Finally, to maintain the flow of information, do a similarly structured follow up in a few months. By participating in this process, you will lead by example.

Focus On The Bad Apple

Even after you’ve taken these steps, your bad apple’s behavior might persist. If this is the case, before approaching her individually, reflect on the relationship between you as the leader and her as the employee and ensure that there are no changes you can make on your end to improve the situation. 

Then, begin to closely document the problem, including recent and specific examples of behaviors you’d like the bad apple to change. Telling your bad apple that she has a bad attitude isn’t going to do anything except cause an unpleasant argument—give her something to go on and show that you have faith in her.

When talking to your bad apple, be compassionate and empathetic. There may be personal reasons this person is acting the way she is. However, the bad apple still has a responsibility to the team to sweeten up. Give her a fair chance to do that, and then make it clear that continued bad behavior will have negative consequences.

Read more articles on small-business company culture.

Photo: Thinkstock