Throughout any NRL season we have the opportunity to witness some of the best teamwork and sportsmanship at play. Top coaches leading their teams to greatness, players training hard to be the best they can be - all working together with the ultimate goal of premiership glory.
Imagine what would happen if one team member was making negative comments about the club, ignoring the coach's directives, giving away penalty kicks on purpose and bragging about how they get away with not turning up to coaching.
Every great coach knows that one bad apple can bring the whole team down. So if their behaviour was allowed to persist, they would be ostracised by their peers and benched quick-smart, because in a competitive environment, active disengagement will certainly prevent premiership greatness.
Yet in our professional lives, bad apples seem to infiltrate by stealth. Negative comments which influence perceptions, bending rules which normalise misconduct, displaying a sense of entitlement to do as little as possible, disrupting the team when they are trying to achieve goals, spreading malicious gossip and dividing loyalties are just some of the ways bad apples can bring down committed, high performing teams. And it takes a strong coach to prevent, manage and stop the bad apple effect from taking hold and spreading rot throughout a whole barrel.
So how do you identify "bad apples?" Can you bring them around to be more in line with the company direction and values? Can you prevent them from leading the team astray? Here we look at 5 ways you can prevent a bad apple from bringing down a team.
Be the coach
Every coach knows their team members well, sometimes better than they know themselves. They know the strengths of the individuals among the team, their motivations, drivers and ambitions. They seek to build individuals up to achieve their potential to be the best they can be.
Through this genuine interest in helping individuals succeed, the coach achieves high performance and engenders a loyalty that can be tough to break – by even the most rotten of apples.
Bad apples usually try and influence other team members into their destructive behaviour, but when there is undivided loyalty to their leader, it is far harder for them to succeed. Further, loyal team members are more likely to expose the start of some poor behaviour to the coach sooner rather than later, allowing it to be nipped in the bud early.
Reflect on whether you have been the best coach you can be. How well do you know your team members? What do they seek from work? How are you helping them achieve their goals and create a great place to work? If you struggle to answer these questions then perhaps you need to step up and lead, by investing more time in your team in a coaching capacity – remember it is never too late.
Set the team standard
The coach sets the standards for the team. Missing training – not on. Gossiping – not happening. Turning up late – unacceptable. Negativity – uh huh. Cheating, misconduct – instant dismissal.
A great coach sets the expectation for the behaviours they will and won’t tolerate, the levels of respect and the values they see exhibited on and off the field. In many cases they involve the team in an exercise where they provide input as to what makes a great team, how the team wants to be perceived and how any actions that are not aligned should be handled.
This allows the best coaches to quickly and easily call out anti-team behaviour and remind the team member’s participating how it will impact the whole team’s chance of success.
Ensure team members play their positions
While bad apples can actually be high performers (think of the high performing sales team member that is poaching leads from colleagues), if they are stepping on team members toes it can quickly and easily create disharmony and bring a whole team unstuck - especially if they are the glory.
Further, when team members aren’t playing their positions it can be harder to uncover skills gaps, lack of capability, under-performance or boredom which can all be drivers of poor behaviour.
By ensuring everyone plays their positions you’ll quickly identify whether the weakness is on the wing or the mid-field and be able to take corrective action. That corrective action may be giving the team member additional support or training, redirecting their skills or keeping them busy with additional work which can be enough to head a bad apple off at the pass.
Build the bench, raise the bar
If you suspect you have a bad apple among the team you may need to build your bench strength. Unhappy team members can be preparing to leave, or you may be deciding whether they are welcome to stay. Regardless, a sudden departure can be difficult for a team that is already fractured from the influence of a bad apple.
In some cases, bad apples morals and ethics can be compromised which creates risk that they may wreak havoc on the way out. In addition, they are unlikely to get a strong reference from their leader or colleagues and may simply high tail it to a competitor and spill the company secrets.
In any great team, there are skilled reserves ready to cover the team from sudden injury, departure or lagging performance. They effortlessly step into the role when needed and can see the team through for the short or long term.
As the leader, imagine what would happen if any team member was to depart suddenly. Are there single points of failure, are there key dependencies, is there intellectual property that is residing with team members? Think about how you can keep everyone playing their positions but still have a strong reserve bench should the need arise.
Make tough decisions
A sporting coach will not hesitate to make tough decisions when they have a team member not acting in the best interest of the club because the impact is visible. In workplaces, aside from the rules that need to be followed to move someone out of the business, the impact can be less visible but significant if left to fester. A bad apple can cost far more than the cost of their salary.
Consider the cost of negative publicity if someone is engaging in misconduct. The cost of a safety issue, if they are pushing rules and boundaries. The loss of a contract or major job because one team member wasn’t performing at their best. The cost of a whole team of disgruntled employees who wish to leave because they feel one of their peers will bring them down.
If you have set the standards, built trust, tried identifying the root cause of the behaviour, redirected their behaviour, helped them overcome any shortcomings and it hasn’t worked, you may be left with no choice but to let the team member go. In cases of misconduct or policy breaches, this may be black and white decision.
Identify the problematic team member. Consider that they may even be a high achiever.
Invest more time with the team, step up and be the coach so it is harder to fall under the negative influence of a bad apple.
Make sure the expected behaviour standards of the team are clear and call out actions that are not aligned.
Ensure team members have clear roles and responsibilities which will expose poor behaviour or performance.
Support team members who may be struggling as insecurity may underlie the issue.
Have a contingency team if a team member is a risk of departure.
If all else fails, consider moving them on.
Like any great sporting team, their success is highly dependent on the leader setting the direction, the behaviours, attitude and values and ensuring the team remains committed and aligned. If you build loyalty among your team so that any negative influence is minimised, set standards, be fair and follow through, then you are at low risk of a bad apple – but it can happen to anyone. Remember, one bad apple has the ability to unravel a whole team or business and while the impact may almost happen by stealth, they can’t be ignored.
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