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What Leaders Can Do When They Have Bad Apples On Their Team

In our last post, we shared the study by Dr. William Felps on the effect of “Bad Apples” on team performance. In short, he found that any one of three classic dysfunctional behaviors by one team member (being a Jerk, a Slacker or a Pessimist) negatively impacted team performance by 30-40%.

However, he did find one group where the bad apple did not spoil the barrel. In fact, this team performed really well. Here is Dr. Will Felp’s description of what happened in this group:

“There was just one guy who was a particularly good leader. And what he would do is he would ask questions. And he would engage all the team members and defuse conflicts. And I found out later that he is actually the son of a diplomat. So his father, I guess, is a diplomat from some South American country. And he had this amazing diplomatic ability to defuse the conflict that normally would emerge when this actor, Nick, would display all this real jerk behavior.”

Dr. Felps was so intrigued by this outcome that he is studying it further. So while not validated by research (yet), it appears that asking questions may be the answer to disruptive team behavior.

It makes perfect sense to me. We teach leaders to do these things when their team begins to exhibit dysfunctional team behavior:

Model the way. Ensure that you are exhibiting the behavior you need from the team.

Name it. Take time from the task to reflect back to the team what you are observing, in a neutral, non-judgmental way. For example, you might say:

  • “It seems that we’ve lost our energy on this task.”
  • “Can we take a time out? We seem to be off task.”

Ask Good Questions. This is the behavior Dr. Felps observed – a leader asking good questions about what is happening. Questions engage others, causes the group to pause and consider and open up thinking. For example, you might ask:

  • “What does everyone think about this?”
  • “What makes you feel that way?”
  • “Are you certain that is accurate?”
  • “What assumptions are we making?”

Help the Group Refocus. Once you’ve opened the discussion, listened, and gotten to the issue, leaders can help the group get back on task. This is an engagement step – not a command step, so the questions might look like this:

  • “What can we do to resolve this?”
  • “What do we prefer happen?”
  • “What specifically does each one of us need to do?”

So, I’m curious to continue the discussion. What’s worked for you when you’ve got a bad apple on your team?

More to explore

2 Responses

  1. What works? Fire them and now. Chances are that once they know that their deeds have been uncovered, they will continue historic practices by taking their deeds underground.

    1. That’s certainally one approach. I’m much more inclined to address it, set the standard for the behavior you want (in words and actions), and use the power of the group to correct the “bad apple” behavior.

      What approaches would others take?

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