Bad Apples

Bad Apples

“One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch…” is a line from the 1971 chart-topping hit by the Osmonds. Donny is pleading with a woman to look past a previous heartbreak and give him a chance. His bad apple metaphor playfully contrasts with the proverb which suggests that one bad apple does indeed spoil the barrel.

In business, bad apples or difficult people will spoil the whole bunch if the causes at the root of the difficulties are not confronted. The spoilage can manifest as declining employee engagement, defensive behaviours among peers, lowered productivity, and sinking morale.

People are often labeled as bad apples because of their real or perceived performance failures and/or because of the interpersonal tensions that appear if the cause of the tension is not addressed. It is human nature to blame others for our problems, but this hasty judgement usually focuses on the symptoms rather than the causes.

There is a concept in psychology called “attribution error.” It describes the universal human tendency to interpret the errors of others as personal failings, or caused by the person, but to interpret our own errors as the consequence of outside factors or mitigating circumstances. We tend to blame others when things go wrong but excuse ourselves.

When evaluating a difficult person it is important to determine if the person is, indeed, the bad apple or if there are situational apples already rotting in the basket that are the true root cause of the poor performance and difficult person outcomes.

There are multiple factors that can trigger performance issues and negative behaviour. Before making the judgement that an individual is the cause of the difficulty, it is a wise strategy to determine if there are structural, situational, or leadership factors that are contributing to the problem. Ask:

  1. Has there been a change in the individual’s job assignment?
  2. Is he or she experiencing stress at home?
  3. Have reporting channels changed in the organization?
  4. Is there adequate training for any new responsibilities?
  5. Is leadership demonstrating responsiveness to individual needs and goals?

One bad apple will spoil the whole bunch so it must be removed but make sure you remove the right one or you risk still having a rotten basket.

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July 2, 2020

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One thought on “Dealing with Difficult People

  • Bill Scott

    Spot on Wayne.

    When I first started my career in sales my mentor told me that a great sign of a having a great relationship with a future customer is if you are helping the customer to buy and the customer is trying to help you sell, you know it will be a great relationship after the sale.

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