Bad Apples

The "problem" person. The "bad apple." I hear this all the time in organizations. "What do we do about that one person who is causing trouble for everyone else? The response is typically one of two choices: fix them or fire them. The organizations that are tepid about firing are often calling me in to do the "fixing." Many an executive coach, I imagine, has spent hours trying to "fix" the problem person.

There’s nothing wrong with coaching, and yes, some "problem" employees can benefit from coaching, but don’t fall into this "fixing" trap. Jeffrey Pfeffer writes a column in Business 2.0, and in this month’s edition he quotes quality guru W. Edwards Deming:

Defects are always a sign of system failure.

Don’t try to fix the individual until AFTER you have tried to fix the system. That’s like stopping the assembly line to fix a bent part, then starting up the assembly line again and have it produce another bent part (that you now need to fix). Productivity will grind to a halt.

Even if you have someone who is genuinely disruptive and a bad fit for your organization, firing them (or counseling them to seek employment elsewhere) is not going to completely solve the problem–I guarantee it. The system always has responsibility, so if you’re the boss, you need to be able to articulate that and do something about it.


  1. 29.09.2005 at 9:30 am

    This is so true, Jamie. I do believe that terminating a disruptive person can be a significant part of changing the system if you follow-through in other areas in a philosophically consistent way.
    All of this reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “Effective Executives are not a product that we can make, but an emergent property of correctly functioning organisations.” – Earl Mardle.

  2. 29.09.2005 at 4:52 pm

    So if 24 people are getting along just fine and one person is causing problems, it’s the system’s fault? Not in my experience. In my view, there are too many factors involved to say that the bad apple is the direct result of the work environment. Certainly the system bears some responsibility, but the individual is ultimately responsible for his/her behavior. And seriously, can we ever “completely solve the problem” of flawed interpersonal relations in the workplace?

  3. 30.09.2005 at 6:28 am

    Great questions, Ben. My answers challenge their rhetorical nature, however. First, you’re right that it’s never ONLY the system’s fault. But it is always PARTLY the system’s fault, in my opinion. Or, more accurately, the problem person is an indication that the system needs attention. Too often organizations satisfy themselves with the “bad apple” diagnosis and ignore the system problems (to the long-term detriment of the organization). Sometimes that one out of twenty-five SHOULD be working somewhere else and perhaps they are not really taking responsibility for the impact of their behavior, but that doesn’t let the system off the hook.
    Your point of the system bearing “some” responsibility while the individual is “ultimately” responsible for behavior to me reflects a common, individual-based perspective on how organizations work (and, ultimately, a mechanistic view of the universe). I hold a different view, and I end up over-stressing the system issues because I think they need more attention in organizations.
    And can we ever “completely” solve the “problem” of interpersonal relations in the workplace? My answer is yes. It takes time and effort, so there is a cost/benefit analysis involved, but working through interpersonal relationship issues is not rocket science, so if we choose to do it, we can do it. Again, because of the costs we may choose to stop working on the issues short of “complete” resolution (I’m not sure bringing in a therapist to help me deal with my authority figure issues is going to produce enough productivity gains to justify the expense). But again, this does not let us off the hook (which is what happens too often in organizations). They know they can’t completely resolve the interpersonal dynamics, so they stick their head in the sand and pretend they are not there at all. I’m advocating against that approach, obviously.