Beware of the Bad Apples You Keep

Why don’t you just fire her?

That’s the first question any leader hears when they complain about the bad apple on his/her team. It’s so simple, really. If someone’s behavior is disruptive and is distracting the team, they should be released so they can find a better mutual fit.

But, in the real world, it’s often much more complicated than that. There are hundreds of reasons why leaders choose to keep a bad apple. At worst, some managers keep bad apples because they lack the courage to confront the behavior. There’s no excuse for this scenario. Period. Managers who overlook negative behavior out of fear need immediate coaching to correct their ability to have honest conversations and provide constructive feedback.

Sometimes, though, the issue is more complicated. It’s possible that the bad apple is also a high performer. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the individual may be highly effective in their own role/responsibilities, but contribute negatively to the culture:

  • A top sales person might work to steal a coworker’s leads.
  • A great product manager might spread office gossip.
  • A marketing manager might take credit for someone else’s ideas.
  • An effective designer might purposely cause a coworker to miss a key deadline.
  • A manager might try to make another department head look bad during a leadership meeting.

Each of these counter-productive behaviors does nothing but cause stress and distrust among colleagues. Communication and collaboration come to a halt and suddenly half the working day is spent whispering about the latest sin by this MVP.

It’s also possible that the bad apple is preserved because he/she is too difficult to replace. This often happens when someone has worked in the organization for decades. “Sure, Mary has a terrible reputation with her coworkers and no one trusts her, but she’s the only one who knows how everything really works around here!” or “I know no one wants to work with Tom, but he’ll retire soon, so let’s just deal with him for a while longer.”

Finally, possibly the most difficult bad apple to remove is the one who is well connected in the organization. When the chief pot-stirrer, finger-pointer, or saboteur is great friends with a senior leader, it may seem impossible to remove the bad apple from the organization.

Plenty of sins are forgiven when an individual is a high performer, but poisoning the culture cannot be one of them. It’s time to stop making excuses. When you condone the destructive acts of one individual, you are really co-signing those behaviors. If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Every day you excuse the actions of the bad apple without reprimanding and/or coaching him/her, you are driving away solid performers. You are contributing to the deteriorating mental health of the team and giving everyone else license to behave similarly.

Have the courage to confront the poor behavior as soon as it occurs. Be honest and direct, not confrontational, as you explain that what transpired is unacceptable, why it is unacceptable, and that you expect more professional, productive behavior in the future. Document the issue and follow up with an action plan to help the individual learn how to exhibit more pro social behaviors with colleagues. Taking ownership of the bad apple problem is key to ensuring it doesn’t become a rotten apple orchard in your organization.