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How to Manage the “Bad Apple”

Hanging_Fotolia_4097682_XSEvery fall, my family and I plan a trip to visit one of the many apple orchards in southeast Michigan. Our day is spent on a tractor, going to the many fields of trees to pick some of the finest apples in the world. We fill our basket full of good, fresh apples. In choosing our apples, we generally will pick the best-looking apples. These apples are mostly on the tree and in some cases they have already fallen to the ground. Any blemished or bad apples we will not pick.

After carefully picking our apples, after a few days we discover some apples are going bad. If a decaying apple is left in the same position and allowed to stay with the other apples, it will affect the apples around it and they will start to deteriorate. If not careful, you could end up with a bunch of bad apples.
The principle of this fact, as we know, is that one bad apple can spoil the entire bunch. This fact is true on project teams in many organizations. Project Managers acquire people who are characteristic of bad apples. They are not “bad,” but have developed bad attitudes. A person with a bad attitude can be disgruntled, could be having a bad day or simply have reached a point where their bad know-it-all attitude prevents them from getting along with team members, project manager and stakeholders. What do you, as a project manager, do when you encounter a “bad apple” on your team?

A “bad apple” team member may not always be obvious. But, they will usually show up somewhere during the life of the project. As a manager and project manager, the “bad apple” has to be dealt with properly, promptly and swiftly.

John Maxwell in his book, Seventeen Laws of Teamwork, suggests that a leader, before dealing with a person with a bad attitude, should do some self-reflection and check their own attitude. The person that is leading needs to make sure they are not the problem.

A few simple steps in dealing with the “bad apple” are as follows:

  • First, document the problem or symptoms as they begin to reveal themselves.
    • Make sure you have all the facts and have completed an inspection of the problem areas. In other words, find out the facts and write them down.
    • Look for and isolate areas that may be the cause of the poor behavior, i.e., life changes, health challenges.
    • Has their attitude changed during the course of the project?
  • The next step is to meet one-on-one with the “bad apple” to provide counseling and advice on how to improve the problem that has been encountered.
  • As a Project Manager, you must try to get to the root of the problem and find out what can be done to correct the situation.
  • Once you are assured of the problem, a correction plan or course of action to solve the problem should be initiated. As a Project Manager, you should document the course of action discussed and you and the team member should sign off on this plan.

Finally, after these steps are completed, the team member will need some time to make the necessary agreed-upon changes to correct the problem. Visible results should be seen, documented and praised. However, if no change is observed and the behavior continues, the Project Manager must start the process of removing the team member. It is obvious to everyone on the team that the bad attitude can and has affected the project. The team members are waiting for the Project Manager to take the lead and make corrective action.

A person with a bad attitude has to be dealt with; either correct the problem or remove them from the team. The behavior cannot be allowed to continue because it can result in permanent damage to the deliverables of the project as well as project failure.

Dealing with difficult people is not a new problem in management. Many authors have written books about how to deal with difficult people. John Maxwell has included “The Law of the Bad Apple” as one of the Seventeen Laws of Teamwork. John points out that not everyone who starts with a team or starts out on a journey will be there until the end. This is important for a leader to recognize. Some will leave voluntarily and others will have to be let go.

A Project Manager should keep the lines of communication open with the functional managers where the people resources originate. Letting the functional manager know the problematic issues with the employee can facilitate the negotiation to remove the “bad apple” from the project team.

A few years ago, as Director of an Information Technology team, I experienced a “Bad Apple” on our project. The person was consistently going around the chain of command and created a lot of confusion on the project. The person was eventually terminated. After a few years, the IT manager asked me if he should re-hire this person. I was against the idea, but the manager hired him anyway. The manager had the same type of issues with this person. After much time and frustration, the manager had to release this employee again. Sadly, the bad behavior and bad attitude of this person did not change after many years.

In closing on a positive note, when a team is free from the negative nature of a person with a bad attitude, the team will rise to new heights and the performance will be notice by everyone.

In my thirty years of experience in the managerial industry, I have had experience with teams that have accomplished and succeeded the objective of the project. It is a rewarding experience for all members of the team.

Deal wisely with the “Bad Apples” and watch your team soar to new heights!

Don’t forget to leave your comments below. 

George Bridges is a Director of Business Analysis with more than 25 years of experience in business systems analysis, business process modeling, operations research and Information Technology. George teaches business analysis and project management to hundreds of seminar and class participants every year. He has participated in the analysis and development of business systems for major corporations, such as Ford Motor Company, Unisys Corporations, and for a large church in the Metropolitan Detroit.

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