7 ways to deal with bad apples before they rot your business
Think back through your career. I bet you’ve come across a few bad apples. People who were rude, negative or liked to gossip behind your back. Every workplace has them. Sometimes, they’re top performers from a functional perspective, but their behaviour leaves a lot to be desired.
Now let me ask you. Did you challenge their behaviour? No? Why was that? I’ll make another bet. Was it because you couldn’t face having that difficult conversation? That’s understandable. Being direct and personal is awkward. Maybe you thought it would be hard to replace this person if they left. So you continued to justify your lack of action to yourself.
Whether it’s office politics, hostile relationships or lack of trust, a negative work environment can lead to disengagement, lower retention rates, decreased productivity, and sheer misery. Everyone suffers when the atmosphere at work is hostile – employees, leadership, and ultimately the company and its bottom line.
Toxic behaviour from bad apples spreads. Before you know it, it can rot your company to its core. Don’t bury your head in the sand and hope for a miracle. Do something about it!
1. Identify your bad apples
It might be crystal clear who’s being disruptive and difficult. But sometimes, these people are hidden in plain sight. We suggest our clients start with a talent assessment exercise to agree on the composition of A-Players, B-Players and C-Players in their company.
In last week’s blog, I identified three types of bad apples – jerks, pessimists and slackers. These tend to fall into the C-Player category. However, you’re also looking for ‘Toxic A-Players’ – the top performers with high levels of social currency but a negative attitude that drags others down. In my world, these have always been salespeople or network engineers. But we’ve known clients with a toxic A-Player on their Executive Team. That’s tricky!
Jim Collins suggests you ask yourself two important questions relating to every executive team member. ‘If they resigned tomorrow, would I be disappointed?’ and ‘Knowing what I know about them now, would I rehire them?’ There needs to be a resounding ‘yes’ to both of these. Any ‘no’ answers mean that person will hold you back. Even if you just pause, it’s a ‘no’ because it wasn’t an obvious ‘yes’. You need to take action straight away.
2. Get clear on positive behaviours
You’re finding it hard to challenge lousy behaviour because there’s no mechanism and vocabulary for you to use. When I talk to CEOs struggling with difficult staff, I ask them, ‘Do you have a behavioural framework?’ ‘No’, they reply blankly. ‘What’s that?’
If you take nothing else away from this blog, take this. A behavioural framework has the power to transform your business. It will codify your culture, bringing clarity to the core values you want it to represent. If you can work out what you believe in, it follows some behaviours underpin these things.
Jim Collins’ ‘Mission to Mars’ exercise is valuable here. You identify the heroes from your company that you’d send to Mars. They need to represent the DNA of your organisation. Their behaviour should embody the very best of your business. If your whole team agrees on this, you can define the behaviours you value.
Also helpful is the ‘Saboteur Exercise’. This will get the whole team to agree on the negative behaviours you’re trying to eliminate.
Once you have a behavioural framework, it can guide everything you do – hiring, firing, promoting and rewarding. And it will help you identify and manage the toxic staff that are holding your business back.
3. Bring in a new vocabulary
If you’ve never got clear on behaviours before, you’ll have no mechanism for tricky conversations. And by tolerating them previously, you’ve allowed these toxic team member behaviours to take hold. The implication is that this behaviour is ok. If you’re not careful, it becomes the norm and, worse still, your whole company will know this.
Your behavioural framework will help you fight against this. It will give you and your managers a new vocabulary to call out negative and destructive behaviour and enable you to be clear that it’s no longer going to be tolerated.
If this framework has been adequately communicated, the toxic employees should know that they’re causing a problem. Managers can get specific in their performance-based discussions, relating to the Core Values and pinpointing exactly when they’ve observed negative behaviours. Then they can set particular time-frames to review and re-visit until they’re satisfied that the problem’s fixed.
4. Get teams to work together to solve issues
Last week’s blog described how the weakest team member drives overall team performance. So why not get the whole team working on overcoming any behavioural issues?
We’ve done this with some of the Executive teams that we coach. It fascinates me. Once we’ve built some trust and rapport, I ask, ‘Which pair of people in this team have the poorest relationship?’ They write two names on a post-it note and then share them with the group. There was one team where the same name appeared on every post-it. The person concerned didn’t write their name down (obviously!), but everyone else did.
So here was a classic case of one individual whose inability to get on with the rest of the team was pulling down the whole team’s performance. And you know what? They had zero awareness of this. None.
It forced the issue with the CEO. Because now, the team told him there was a problem that needed fixing. A coaching intervention was necessary. And the person concerned took it humbly and made great strides.
If you’re a purpose-led business employing people who care, you can’t help but confront this poor performance. Everyone will want to do it. Because it will be stopping you from making the impact, you crave.
5. Encourage radical candour
This all boils down to self-awareness and open, honest communication. Kim Scott coined the phrase, ‘radical candour’ and it’s relevant to any direct conversation you need to have. Make it clear that you’re not giving this feedback to be confrontational. It comes from a place of caring for the individual. You want them to be the best version of themselves that they can be. And you want them to have the most impact on the organisation possible.
A tool like Gallup Strengths can help with this type of feedback. Every personal strength has a balcony and a basement, giving you a way to articulate issues objectively. Say your bad apple has ‘Achiever’ as a strength. You can talk about the positives. They’re motivated and driven. Nobody’s begging them to get on with the work they’re paid to do. But the basement of ‘Achiever’ is a lack of capacity to say thank you. You can tell them it’s having a significant impact on the team. It’s making them look like a jerk. Zoom in on the particular behaviour you want this person to work on.
6. Give everyone KPIs
The first question of the Gallup Q12 survey of team member engagement is ‘Do you know what’s expected of you at work?’ It’s first because it’s the most important. If your bad apple doesn’t know that their performance is poor, how can you expect it to get better? We always recommend job scorecards and KPIs to our clients to solve this. By 5 pm, every staff member should know whether they’ve had a good day.
Measuring productivity in this way is essential. And yet, it seldom happens. There only needs to be one KPI per person, and it could be measured weekly (although daily is better). Guide people to set their own. It’s five times more powerful than when managers set them. And make sure they’re realistic and achievable. Start small, measure every day, celebrate success and build them up over time. This is how to make lasting progress.
7. If all else fails, say goodbye
Ultimately, C-Players and Toxic A-Players can cause significant cultural damage. If you’ve introduced a behavioural and performance framework and things haven’t improved, it’s time to say goodbye.
In my experience, this goes one of two ways. Bad apples will sign up for the level of feedback you’ve put in place or get off the bus. Once they realise your company is a place where they can’t just turn up and be a jerk, they leave. And the whole company breathes a collective sigh of relief!