“Fire him.” came the answer from my mentor. I was kind of expecting that, but not the tone of absolute certainty it came with.
“So you mean all I can do is get rid of him?” Was my weak answer/question.
“Look. He’s a bad apple. All he can do is rot away and with him, the rest of the basket. You and your team are better off without that guy if he’s such a bad team player.” he said.
I believe the proper proverb (or it’s most common form) is something like “one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch”. I’ve always fancied good sayings, specially if there’s food involved. There’s a lot of wisdom behind popular knowledge yet we tend to forget or dismiss it.
It was my third year as a manager yet my first “new” team and assignment. The team was 100% new as was I on that role and we had all been hired at the same time. Most of them were excited and happy to be there, and so was I. By that time I had already understood the importance of not making a big deal of everything the first day, and most of them had enough life and work experience not to make anything too big on that first day too. Most of them, yet not all of them.
He proved to be a challenge from day 1, or as I would find later on, a bad apple. He had experience and had come to the Company with great expectations, which I thought I could help with. I was too new in the role to understand how to do that actually so he’s not entirely responsible for what didn’t work afterwards.
His ideas of progress were toxic as he would rather see the team split and sundered to pieces rather than join in the occasional rebellion all teams go through sometimes. You know what I mean right? There are times when a team needs to change and if you’re leading that change, or going with it, that changes proves great. But if you oppose it, the risk of being run over by it grows exponentially. This team was too new to go through that, though he managed to create the same type of anxiety and make some of the most naive ones (like me), nervous.
At a certain point, I was just hitting a wall with him. I had no idea how to work with that as he was plainly critical of anything I did or suggested as a manager. I even proposed him a plan through which he would grow into a hierarchical position and support future growth. I was naive enough to think he wanted to collaborate in building and shaping the team and but I couldn’t see that he was just into creating chaos for his ulterior motives.
That is another thing about bad apples at work: there is always an ulterior motive, be it clear to us as co-workers or managers or not. Sometimes you might think there’s no such thing, or that you can even make a difference, help them understand there’s always another way of doing things…and you end up pushing them the wrong way, or enabling them to be as bad as they can.
My mentor knew that I was doing just that: enabling him. I now know he understood what was happening from the moment I started telling him about this guy, what he was doing to boicot whatever progress me and the team were making, even when those actions could only benefit him. He listened to me as much as he can until he decided it was time to talk.
What he didn’t tell me then but years afterwards was that I was at a more delicate position back then than I knew, more fragile than the employee I was trying to help. When he told me this I was surprised of course, and a bit ashamed because it did make sense and somehow, I had known all along. I asked my mentor to explain further and his answer was so basic and straight there was no room for any other conclusion other than one I had known all the time: if I had let that bad apple go, everyone would have done better. Maybe even that guy.
“You were the weak link actually. You spent more time trying to make this person happy and comfortable, bending rules and processes to accommodate him rather than the rest of the team. You exposed yourself, walked further into thin ice enough so all he needed to do was push you, make you jump a bit and the ice broke and naturally, you felt the cold rush of realization swallow you.”
I admit he wasn’t as poetic as that, I might have made his words sound better but that was the general concept he transmitted to me, and he was, I knew, right from the very first moment when he said “fire him.”. That made me uncomfortable. I hadn’t fired anyone in my life back then and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I still thought I could “save” them, as most new managers tend to think on their first years at the job.
What actually happened though was this guy pushed me to a limit I let him take me to, and the ice broke. I ended up screaming at him, nasty things were said and of course as you would expect from a bad apple, he was much faster than I was so pretty soon my manager’s manager was calling me and sharing a very corporate, loud and screamed opinion on why I should never scream to, or be loud with an employee. Ever.
Alejandro 0 – Bad apple 1. He actually got my job after I was fired not 6 months after that and as far as I know is still there. I wasn’t really fired for him, but that incident didn’t help me a lot. He hasn’t progressed further in his career though and though he’s reached the top of his division, he’s still stirring and making noise. People in the teams he leads don’t stay longer than 12 months, which makes that the highest attrition rate in the Industry and he’s not even going to the office anymore. The word out there is that he’s just not needed at the office any longer but can do his job from home. Truth is it is also said he’s not welcome anymore, yet he lingers.
I guess that balances the score as I look back in my career and I can say I learnt a few things since then. My mentor was right though: things could have been different if I had taken the proper action when the time was right. You see, there’s always a window of time you can use to act swiftly and either help that person or take the rot away. If you don’t act fast enough, you risk rotting away.
The way I see it now, there are only three ways of dealing with this type of person once you’ve correctly identified them as a bad apple. You try to change them, or you wait for them to go, or you just “let” them go. I tried the first one with this guy and you already know what happened. I haven’t tried the middle one, but I must admit I have done the third one, fortunately not more than a couple of times but I can tell you it was equally frustrating each time: understanding there’s nothing to do but pull the plug on that person isn’t relieving at all, yet sometimes it is all you can do.
Bad apples are not coachable. They are not just negative, they are not challenged by the lack of knowledge or slow minds. They are cunning and do not like to share their smartness. They are basically, toxic as rot is. It is not a matter of context or advice but actually, a choice they make. Nobody is pushed to becoming a villain at work but rather decides to become one. Without going deep into profiling them, what I call tell you from my own experience is that you can always tell one apple from the other one.
Here’s a quick personal list on characteristics I found in common in most rotten apples I’ve met:
I understand that the fact that I haven’t found another way to deal with them doesn’t mean all you can do if you find someone like this is fire that person. You can try what I did or find your own way of dealing with this sort of behavior.
My two cents and personal advice is that if you do find someone who you determine is bad for the team, toxic, or just unhappy beyond any help you or others can provide on the context of a team at work, there’s not a lot you can do. It may be time to sit down with someone’s who’s senior to you, maybe even someone in HR, present the case and stick to your Company’s policies and processes. Those are there for a reason. It will most likely end up with a recommendation of removing that person from your team and the Company all together.
If that should happen you will not feel relieved, but you will have done the right thing. How can you know, you might ask yourself. Well…all the insight I can offer is stop thinking as a victim and start thinking as a leader. There’s a whole team waiting for you to make that call, a team that can prosper if you just remove what’s rotting away.
Bad apples will always rot away. It is just a matter of how far you let that rot extend.