Is There a Bad Apple in Your Bunch?

April 2, 2012

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “One bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” While it’s certainly true when speaking about fruit, does the concept apply to work teams as well? Can one team member with a bad attitude bring everyone else down?

You bet your socks!

Let’s say your team has 10 solid performers and one “Negative Nelly.” You’ve tried to encourage your sour puss to join the rest of the team and see things in a more positive light, but she’s having none of it. In fact, you suspect that she enjoys complaining, nay saying and finding fault with every new idea. Your hope is that because your positive and productive team members outnumber her 10-to-1, she will eventually see the error of her ways and move her attitude in a more positive direction.

Stop dreaming. It’s never going to happen.

Negative people are energy vampires, literally sucking the positive energy out of a room, draining energy from everyone with whom they interact.

With work teams, the dynamics tend to follow a predictable pattern. At first, the rest of the team tries to work with her, cheerfully initiating conversations only to be turned off by her negativity. They try to convince her that her victim mentality doesn’t help, that people and situations aren’t as bad as she thinks. But this rarely works; over time, they begin to avoid her out of self-preservation.

Eventually, your bad apple affects the performance of the team. Communication suffers, and productivity is impacted as people look for ways to work around her, only engaging her when they are forced to do so.

Some team members become vocal and complain to you about her negative attitude while segregating themselves from her; others grow tired of resisting her constant negative dialog and join her on the “dark side.” Eventually, your team splits and serious dysfunction results.

As the leader, it is your responsibility to make sure every team member acts in a way that supports and promotes a positive, healthy working environment. While it is always a plus to have strong people on your team who model a positive attitude for others, any problems with attitude are yours to fix, not the team’s.

Start by providing specific and timely feedback. When you hear her complain or say something negative, privately bring it to her attention as soon as possible. Help her to understand the impact of her negativity on her performance and the team’s morale. If she reserves her negativity for times when you are not around and you hear about it from other team members, even though you did not personally hear the comment, you still need to coach her. In my experience, at least 50 percent of the feedback you offer as a leader references behavior you did not personally witness. You need to become comfortable with addressing issues using third-party information.

Make no mistake; negativity is a performance issue, not just a personality trait, and it should be handled using your company’s progressive discipline policy. If her behavior does not change, you should document your conversations in writing, following your company guidelines. Be firm and compassionate. Don’t beat around the bush because you are uncomfortable. You have a responsibility to provide her with honest feedback. Tell her exactly what you expect from her and warn her of the consequences of failing to improve. Hopefully she will get the message and change her behavior. At some point though, if there still isn’t significant improvement, you may need to remove her from your team.

Personal relationships and length of service can add a layer of difficulty to effectively addressing these issues, but as leaders, it is our responsibility to remove all obstacles to our team’s success. No one should get a pass on bad behavior because they are a personal friend, family member or “opened the office 20 years ago.”

Negative attitudes do as much damage to productivity as incompetence, so they must be aggressively managed. If you allow negativity to continue, your team will begin to wonder why you are unwilling to address the problem, and your credibility will suffer.

Being a leader means having the courage to do what is right, even if it is uncomfortable, unpopular or temporarily creates a hardship for your team. If your “Negative Nelly” can’t or won’t change, you have to take disciplinary action. Your reputation and the trust you have built with the rest of your team members is at stake.

About Kathy Ryan

Ryan is facilitator for Insurance Journal's Academy of Insurance and author of the book "You Have to Say the Words: An Integrity-Based Approach for Tackling Tough Conversations and Maximizing Performance." Join Ryan for her upcoming Academy webinars starting April 4, 2012. The five-part series focuses on developing critical leadership skills such as building trust, hiring the right people, performance management, fearless feedback and team leadership, and is appropriate for all management levels.

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Latest Comments

  • August 11, 2014 at 4:10 am
    UHfan808 says:
    Amen!
  • April 13, 2012 at 2:22 pm
    Garth says:
    I agree with this approach....
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