Ever bought a bag of potatoes at the store, brought them home, then in a few days find one bad potato in it? Experience teaches you that you have to get it out of there quickly- not only because of the smell and the mess, but because it seems that the rot always spreads- soon the whole bag of potatoes are ruined if you don’t get the rotten one out quickly.
Project and Operational teams work like this. I think we’ve all experienced a “bad apple” on a team. Dealing with the one person who, for whatever reason, is doing a bad job, invariably seems to drag everyone down. Your best performers will vary as to why they get worse at what they do- resentment over everyone not pulling their own weight, frustration at obvious incompetence, impatience with poor communication skills… the list goes on and on, but it always happens. Not only does the poor performer not do well, but they drag down the team.
This is not just random observation, although it’s likely many of us have seen it, but it’s shown up in research. Here’s an interview fromThis American Life Of Will Felps. Felps is a researcher and professor at the Rotterdam School of Management. His experiments with inserting bad apples into work teams showed that not only did bad apples damage work teams, within 45 minutes other team members would begin to take on the characteristics of the bad apple. Everyone on the team’s work would degrade.
Another effect of a bad apple is that their presence is often seen as a challenge to your leadership. Your failure to do something about bad performers reduces both the trust and respect of the rest of your team in you. I’ve heard this said to me and of my colleagues more than once in my career: “If you/mangement/whoever can’t see that (insert bad apple here) is wrecking this project, you/they are an idiot. If everyone else can see it, why can’t you/them? If you can, why don’t you fix it?” Or, here’s the worst one of all: ”If you/they don’t care that (bad apple) is wrecking the project, then obviously you don’t care. Why should I?”
I’m not saying can everyone who does a bad job on something, but the one thing you must do is take action quickly. Correct the behavior if you can; if you can’t, get that person off the team they’re screwing up and get them on to something else- either in your company or not, but get them out of there. Too many times companies sit on their poor performers. I myself have been guilty of this before. The instinct is to give people a fair chance, but ‘fair chance’ does not get the job done. Action does. Take action to rehabilitate or remove your bad apples. Don’t drop the performance of your entire team.