How to Create Employee Engagement with that One Bad Apple

By Wally Hauck, Ph.D.

At a recent leadership conference while delivering a keynote presentation, I was asked a question, "What do you do with that one 'bad apple' who just won't listen and who won't change?"

We have all heard the expression "one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch" and I agree that is true but only if you do nothing and allow the bad apple to do the spoiling. Leaving the "bad apple" alone is not leadership. Taking action is leadership and so the question remains, what does a leader do?

Define "Bad Apple"

We must first define "bad apple." I am sure we can all agree that this is someone whose behavior is inappropriate. What is inappropriate behavior? Let's agree it feels disrespectful. Consider the person who speaks loudly on their cell phone. We are often appalled at his/her insensitivity yet it happens quite often. We must therefore ask, is that person just completely unaware of their impact or are they truly a bad apple meaning they are purposely disrespectful and they don't care?

Let's agree on a clear distinction that will help us with our strategy. There are two types of "bad apples." The first is the one who is totally unaware of the impact they are having on others around them and if they became aware they would stop and apologize. They mean no disrespect and will probably feel apologetic once they are told. They have the capacity for empathy which is a critical element of emotional intelligence. The second is either aware or unaware of their impact and they really don't care. They are putting their own needs and their own desire above all others.

The second type of "bad apple" can often be tolerated, albeit it is still upsetting, when encountered in public. I for one often take note of the disrespect but if I know I will soon be out of their sphere of influence, I will probably avoid any embarrassing confrontation.

If, however, this behavior occurs in an organization, a leader must step up and take action. Inaction will allow that "bad apple" to spread to the others and surely "spoil the bunch." We teach what we allow. Two action steps are recommended. Define the specific behavior wanted in the organization and then respectfully confront that behavior. In other words, manage the variation in the desired behaviors.

Define the Specific Behavior

The simple truth is many leaders fail to define the specific observable behavior they want. Many leaders just assume most people have common sense and especially common courtesy. This is a very bad assumption. Common sense and/or common courtesy to one person may be a mystery to others.

Defining the observable behaviors is not easy. Aligning an organization on a set of specific behaviors as a standard often requires expert facilitation and good counsel. For example, everyone has different ideas about how to define respect and yet the descriptions must be clear and with as little interpretation as possible.

To illustrate, the concept of the golden rule is probably one you will want to include in your descriptions. This concept is found, in one form or another, in eleven major religions.

Respectfully Confront the Behavior

If the list of specific desired behaviors is created, clearly communicated, and emphatically defined as an expectation, confronting the "bad apple" becomes easier. The purpose of the confrontation is not to create upset or make the person wrong. It is to uncover which type of "bad apple" they are. Are they the "unaware" or the "aware and uncaring" apple?  The "unaware bad apple" wants to become aware. The "aware and uncaring" does not.

Three Parts of Confrontation

Confronting the "bad apple" respectfully has three parts. Part one is to ask permission to give feedback. Feedback is not criticism. Feedback is just information or data that something is amiss. "Excuse me; may I give you some feedback? Your telephone discussion is so loud I am not able to speak with my friend." This is feedback. In contrast this is criticism; "Stop being a jerk, quiet down." Criticism feels disrespectful because it involves opinion. Feedback is respectful because it is merely stating an observation with permission.

Part two is to offer them other options to change behaviors. Better still, offer them options and allow them to choose which is best for them as long as the options are all consistent with the clearly stated desired behaviors. "Do you want to quiet your voice, call them back later when you are alone, or do you have another suggestion? Which is best for you?"

Part three is watching the reaction. If the "bad apple" apologizes and makes amends, you know you have someone who is merely unaware. If instead they fight you, or show a lack of empathy, you might truly have the "unaware and uncaring bad apple" person who can have the power to spoil others. A leader must be willing to continuously confront and observe. If the person continuously refuses to cooperate even after reasonable requests for change, this documentation can serve as a reason(s) for dismissal.

Leaders must confront disrespectful behavior otherwise they risk encouraging further violations from that person and from others. The key is to define what you want, then confront respectfully.
Dr. Wally Hauck is a Communico facilitator and author of Art of Leading: 3 Principles for Predictable Performance Improvement and Stop the Leadership Malpractice: How to Replace the Typical Performance Appraisal. You can follow him on Facebook.
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