One Bad Apple


Never underestimate the divisive power one person can have on an entire team. One team member with a bad attitude can affect overall productivity, communication, and job satisfaction. This week, Lori Howard offers some direct, decisive solutions for handling these "de-jellers" before they ruin your otherwise cohesive team.

Recently, I was discussing with a colleague the challenges of managing a team that just couldn't get along. "Two months ago, my team was like that," Josh said. "The team was always divided. Complaints were rampant, people arrived late and left early, they didn't communicate well with each other, and they either fought over every project decision or didn't talk at all. People weren't getting as much done as I thought they should, or even could." Josh grimaced, "I felt more like a parent than a manager, spending all my time smoothing ruffled feathers and trying to keep things moving along."

This sounded like a team comprised of difficult employees. But the more we talked, the more it became clear that his team was being held hostage. The behavior of one team member was affecting the entire team - not just their attitude, but their productivity as well. One rotten apple was spoiling the whole team dynamic.
I call these "bad apples" de-jellers, and they are notoriously difficult to work with. They don't carry their own load, yet complain about how overworked they are. In fact, de-jellers tend to complain to everyone about everything: the company, management, people, processes, and workload.

Never underestimate the impact of one person on an entire team. One person with a problem attitude or divisive nature can stifle communications, make people tense, and ruin the productivity of everyone around him. One de-jeller can make teammates unhappy by his mere presence in a room. He can keep people from working together and make others feel like they are always choosing sides. The team is reduced to a collection of individuals and ceases to function as a powerful entity. The things we want from a team: synergy, support, mentoring, coaching, and learning- can all be negatively affected by a single person. When a de-jeller is present, the team is divided. Communication is disrupted because the de-jeller is always intruding. Worst of all, productivity for the whole team drops.

If you have a de-jeller on your team, don't be held hostage.

Don't Ignore the Problem and Hope it Will Go Away
Problems like this one never go away on their own. Address the problem directly and honestly, allow the person who is de-jelling the team to own her problem and her solution. Josh originally tried to hide the employee on less important, less difficult projects. He put his de-jeller on teams with people who appeared to put up with her. But that didn't work. The problem was still there, ready to reappear at the first opportunity. Don't bury the problem by isolating the de-jeller. Don't keep remixing the teams to make it work. The products will suffer. The work will suffer. Everyone will suffer!

Don't Try To Save the De-jeller
You are a manager, and it's not your job to save people. Clearly tell the de-jeller the behavior you observe, and allow him to solve the problem or to seek help. Don't accommodate him. Josh didn't ask his de-jeller if she wanted to be saved, Josh assumed she did. Only when Josh asked her to solve the problem did things change.

Do Address the Problem Honestly and Directly
This is your responsibility as manager; not addressing problems directly only perpetuates them. Communicate clearly to the employee what you observe about his behavior and his ability to do his job. But remember, this is where a manager's responsibility ends. Say, "I am observing these things in your behavior/performance - they need to change. How do you want to handle it?" Place the responsibility in the hands of the de-jeller. After all, it is his behavior, his job, and his life.

Don't Delay Letting Go of the De-jeller if Things Don't Improve
If the de-jeller does not take responsibility and change his behavior in a meaningful and noticeable way, it's time for you to take stronger action to save your team. Letting go of a de-jeller may not be pleasant, but it may be the best remedy. Ultimately, Josh and his de-jeller agreed she needed to move on.

Today, Josh's team is completely changed. People are talking with each other, productivity has increased, people are contributing and showing initiative, and they enjoy coming to work. The team is a lot more effective and productive. Initially, some team members expressed resentment that the disruptive employee had been protected for so long. Some complained as they picked up her unfinished work, but in the end, people were glad to take over the projects and do them well. Now that the de-jeller was gone, they began to interact with each other and work together. They even started laughing again.

A productive team is one that works together toward a common goal - successful project completion, where everyone plays a part and does their work well. When team members work effectively together, tease each other respectfully, and play to their strengths - you know you have a good team. When they voluntarily go the extra mile, make suggestions for improving things, and ask for help when stuck - you know you have a good team. When they don't talk about each other behind one another's backs, and don't rant at you that "management is stupid" - you know you have a good team.

Once Josh recognized the nature of the problem and realized the effect this one person was having on the team, he took action. Today, Josh's team looks and acts completely different. They have jelled.

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