Handling bad apples on your team

#53, Mar 21, 2024

Once upon a time, in a tech org not far away, there was a leader…

A tech leader was looking at the backlog for the 5th time today. He was really angry at one developer. There was a story on the backlog that was still in progress but should have been completed days ago.

‘I’m working on it’ was the last thing this developer said to the leader. But she always said that. This wasn’t the first time such an issue occurred. Even when the developer completed the task on time – it was rubbish. The quality was totally unacceptable. The bare minimum.

The tech leader tried several approaches in the past months.
Guidance, pair programming, micromanagement.
Nothing worked.

The tech leader was in despair.

Hi 🙂 Hari here.

/* started writing this at 6:15 AM as I woke up with a bit of a back pain… But I love working when everyone’s asleep. It’s so peaceful. And today, besides the noise of the cars passing by, I hear the beautiful songs of birds. Spring is coming… */

Today’s tale is focused on how to manage bad apples on your team so that they don’t destroy it.

The 3 types of Bad Apples

The Jerk – they act rudely, they make fun of others, they are sarcastic and hurtful.

The Slacker – they rely on the efforts of others. They don’t complete tasks on their own. They don’t take risks or responsibilities. They expect others will compensate.

The Downer – a person who continually expresses a negative mood or attitude: pessimism, anxiety, insecurity, and irritation. Imagine Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.

/* This is a simplified version of what Will Felps and his colleagues found out in their research published in 2006: ‘How, when, and why bad apples spoil the barrel: Negative group members and dysfunctional groups’. I first read about this in Daniel Coyle’s book The Culture Code */

The Jerk will make all team discussions unbearable.
The Slacker will always rush, overpromise and underdeliver.
The Downer will kill the team’s atmosphere.

The Jerk is the most visible of the 3 and by default is the one who is managed the most. However, The Slacker and The Downer have a similar negative impact on the team if not handled well.

Today’s tale is a story about a leader managing a Slacker, but I’ll give you some principles to apply for all the apples.

How bad apples spoil the barrel

First, let’s be clear: one-off or sporadic negative behavior doesn’t make someone a bad apple. A person should consistently behave in such a way to be considered a bad apple.

/* Another note: I use the ‘bad apple’ label for ease of communication. But labels, both negative and positive, could have negative effect, so I’d avoid using them in your day-to-day conversations */

This is how a bad apple will kill your team if not managed well:
1) they display their typical behavior once → you notice this
2) they display it regularly → you discuss it with them privately
3) your reactions are not enough → people on your team are now affected
4) your team gets dysfunctional → it’s hard turning back

Keep in mind that the spread doesn’t mean copying the behavior.
If you have a Jerk, it doesn’t mean others will become Jerks.

The spread means that the team climate and performance worsens.

Let’s go back to today’s tale to explain a bit more in depth.
The leader was facing a Slacker.
And the team was already at stage 3 – it was spreading.

How the bad apple’s behavior spread in today’s tale:
• The tech leader had big management overhead – he had to constantly monitor The Slacker’s work & engage into micromanagement tactics. He also was constantly discussing with his people partner at the company how to address the situation.

• People on the team had to compensate The Slacker’s work – more code reviews, lots of defects. People even had to the work and complete it themselves.

• People on the team started disengaging and getting demotivated – they didn’t see any corrective action from the tech leader. People were constantly discussing the issue privately, between each other. Instead of working, they shared their frustrations in order to cope with the issue.

• The team’s discussions were becoming more and more artificial and ineffectiveThe Slacker was always in a hurry, pushing meetings to end.

I could go on and on to what were the negative effects.
The situation in today’s tale was not handled well.

The only viable solution was getting the bad apple out of the team.
But I’ll get back to solutions in a minute.

How to spot the spread earlier

One approach we use when coaching dev teams is to do a regular team assessment. In this case, when we jumped into helping the team, we used our tool for tech leaders TReE Team Scan, which quickly and easily gives you in-depth analysis of the team dynamics.

It didn’t give us directly whether there was a bad apple on the team.
It measured the current state of the team. It allowed us to brainstorm ideas and to measure our actions’ effectiveness.

As I said earlier – in this case, based on the history of the team, the only good solution was letting go of the bad apple. 2 months later, when we measured how people felt, lots of the aspects improved significantly and where now green.

/* As an engineering manager, my default tool has always been 1-to-1 meetings, but I’ve had cases where I couldn’t easily get to what people were thinking + when I had a team of 35 people – it was nearly impossible to do the meetings, so I was a bit detached and couldn’t observe things first-hand. I’d love it if you write back and share your approach to getting insights about your team’s state. */

How to react to negative behavior before it’s too late?

As a leader, it’s important to handle that behavior both publicly (in front of the team) and privately.

If you do it only privately, people would assume by default that you tolerate this behavior.

It’s also important to handle it when it happens sporadically.
If you let it happen regularly, you have fewer tools or options to react.

But there is a balance you must keep.

The two typical reactions I’ve seen leaders do are penalizing and ignoring.
But these will have poor effect either on the bad apple or the team.

Your goal is to keep the person and remove the behavior.

“You can stay. Your behavior cannot” – I love this phrase I once heard from Pat Lencioni’s podcast At The Table. But how to implement it?

How to manage this?

During team discussions

When I observe a bad apple’s behavior, I combine two things at once:
1) I send belonging cues
2) I silently correct the behavior

/* I’ve previously talked about belonging cues. Get a glance of what they are if you are not familiar with them. */

Sending belonging cues would indicate to the person that they’re important to the team. It acknowledges their position or needs.

Silently correcting the behavior would indicate to the team what’s the norm and how people should behave. It acknowledges that the behavior is not OK.

If during discussion a Jerk says to a team member ‘Your idea is stupid!’, I would jump in and ask The Jerk something like ‘You think this idea would not work, right?’.

After getting the confirmation, I would continue with ‘I understand this. At the same time, we’re currently brainstorming and not killing ideas. Now we should listen to understand everyone’s idea. Later, we will choose the best one.’

The first statement is a simple paraphrasing. It’s aimed at The Jerk and it sends him a belonging cue – his opinion matters.

The second statement corrects the behavior. It quickly moves away from the negative behaviour and engages everyone back.

It’s like a little dance.
Step forward to handle the behavior.
Step back to engage everyone back.

Of course, when a negative becomes more chronic, you should increase the power of your statements. The dance will become more passionate.

/* Read further in Amy Edmondson’s book The Fearless Organization on how to set the stage properly and when to penalize */

Giving feedback privately

I can talk all day about leaders underestimating the power of a good feedback (both positive and negative). I’ve seen hundreds of leaders in tech avoiding feedback.

But when you observe a negative, “bad apple” type of behavior, you must act.
Remember: “You can stay. Your behavior cannot.”

What I would do is get the bad apple in a private conversation and give them feedback.

I love the XYZ approach to giving feedback:
1) X: state the problem directly (not rudely!)
2) Y: say why the behavior is a problem
3) Z: give solution or advice

In the case of The Jerk’s example, I would say something like:
X: ‘During the discussion today, you said Jake’s idea was stupid.’

Y: ‘This made Jake’s face turn red. In my experience, I’ve seen this leading to unhealthy conflicts and unproductive discussions.’

(empathy): ‘I understand that you want us to find the best possible solution. At the same time, I want to have productive and healthy debates.’

Z: ‘Next time, when people share ideas during brainstorming, instead of judging other people’s ideas vocally, write down your objections and share them when we reach the decision-making phase of our discussions.’

/* There is a ton of actionable tips on giving feedback in the Soft Skills Pills library that I won’t cover in today’s newsletter. In the example above, I’ll probably change the Y a bit and find an impact The Jerk cares about more. Also, to practice this in a safe environment, we’ve created a “pill” for giving feedback. */

When there’s no effect

Before, I said “Your goal is to keep the person and remove the behavior.”

Well, that’s not entirely true.
It depends on whether the person is coachable.

/* I first learned about this from the book The Trillion Dollar Coach. I highly recommend this book! */

If you give proper feedback to the bad apple, but there’s no real change: ask yourself if the person is coachable.

Let’s consider the famous competence-likability matrix above.

Most leaders in tech and most tech organizations deal easily with the so-called incompetent assholes. They don’t contribute and are jerks. The quick solution to these are: get rid of them quickly!

The competent nice guys are a must-keep.
And if you don’t manage your bad apples – you’d lose them quickly.

Most leaders have troubles dealing with the yellow areas – the incompetent nice guys and the competent assholes.
The big issue there is that when you give them feedback – there’s often a slight improvement for a short time.
And you now have hope that they’re coachable.

In today’s tale, The Slacker was actually an incompetent nice girl who didn’t put any extra effort into improving her technical skills. That was the core reason of her behavior.

But she was not coachable – in this team and by this tech leader.

If you have coachable people in the yellow areas: put the extra effort and invest time to help them improve.
If you have uncoachable people in the yellow areas: part ways quickly.

So, find out if they’re coachable and act on it.

How to manage bad apples on your team

(the checklist)

  1. Observe and identify negative behavior.
  2. Handle the behavior privately and publicly. Don’t penalize or ignore. Send belonging cues & correct.
  3. Monitor your team dynamics. Measure the effect of the negative behavior and your actions.
  4. Get rid of the bad apple if they’re not coachable.

… and the team lived happily ever after.

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