CEOs: It’s time to get rid of your bad apple

Michael Jackson got it wrong

“One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch.” —Michael Jackson

Jackson could dance and sing, but these lyrics are wrong. In a work (or social) environment, one bad dude or dudette can absolutely spoil the whole bunch.

In the past month, I’ve had two clients “lose” a bad apple from their senior team. Not a truly rotten-to-the core apple, but one that’s off-color and a bit unsavory. In both cases, the person was a somewhat valued member of the team because of their technical skill, so neither was about to get fired. However, after they left, both CEOs and their remaining senior leaders felt like they had shackles removed. I work with both senior teams, so can tell you that the tenor of the group changed dramatically: Real conversations were easier; difficult subjects were welcome; healthy conflict and trust greatly improved.

Solid research supports my assertion, and I’ve seen it repeatedly in my career.

Incidentally, by “bad apple,” I don’t mean lack of skill, but rather someone who doesn’t play nicely with others, is perhaps a bit narcissistic and looks out for themself before the team. I suspect you’re now picturing someone on your team or a previous team.

To succeed, healthy executive teams require that either all individuals provide input to reach a successful outcome or that one member of the team performs well. In the first case, as the study I referenced indicates, the group’s general intelligence is important, as is its ability to get along (conscientiousness, emotional stability and agreeableness). In the second situation, you’d better have one really smart individual on the team.

I don’t see many teams with just one extremely smart person succeed over the long haul. However, general intellectual ability, combined with effective interpersonal behaviors, is more likely to make for a long-tenured, successful team.

What does this mean for you? Don’t accept team members who are ineffective or don’t put the team’s interest first. One bad apple does spoil the whole bunch, regardless of what Michael thought.

Categories: Management & Leadership