Sorting Out the Bad Apple on Your Work Team


December 22, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

As a leader, you may have to contend with a team member who appears to be poisoning the rest of the group. This person is disconnected from everyone else you manage. The team used to work like a well-oiled machine and everyone got along well, but this year has proved difficult. You believe this team member’s bad attitude is causing the problem. What can you do? Here are a few suggestions to manage your team, even when one member has a worm.

Work on improving the team behavior of every member. In this way, the problematic person won’t feel “singled out” by you. This will minimize potentially bad feelings toward you and the rest of the group.

Next, have each team member ask every other member a simple question: “In the future, how can I do a great job of helping our team demonstrate effective teamwork?” This will foster healthy dialogue. Encourage all of them to stay positive and focused in their replies to other team members. Listen to them, learn, and express gratitude for the suggestions.

In one-on-one meetings, you might then have each team member discuss with you what he or she has learned from the other team members. As the team leader, after hearing the summary of other suggestions from this person’s co-workers, provide your ideas.
Team must want the apple to thrive

Finally, to keep getting suggestions and to ensure reinforcement, ask each person to commit to following up with fellow team members on his or her plan for improvement. By participating in this process, you will lead by example, rather than just preach.

This series of suggestions will work only if the difficult individual has issues that are behavioral, is willing to try to improve, and will be given a fair chance by the other team members. If he or she is unwilling to try, has a sarcastic or cynical attitude toward change, or will not be given a chance to change by the rest of the team, this strategy won’t succeed.

If the team member has a bad attitude, explain that a change in behavior is critically important. Let him or her know that you want to help, however you can, but that he or she has to make the effort to improve. An employee that still doesn’t care should be fired. Or if the culprit is a critical contributor who can function well without team interaction, this person should work alone, not on the team.