Thursday, October 11, 2012

One Bad Apple

Routinely each week, someone in a leadership position when talking about a difficult employee will say to me, “Remember: one bad apple spoils the entire barrel.” Having picked apples and stored them in large baskets during my younger years, I have seen this take place. It occurs because a rotting apple gives off ethylene, which speeds up the ripening of the other apples. It is a mess once it takes place.

The implication for the world of business is the belief that one toxic employee can cause other employees to become toxic, therefore creating a downward spiral of productivity and effectiveness. Many who follow this line of thinking often share the now classic quote from Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, namely “First who... then what.” 

As an executive coach and consultant, I often respond to these comments with a quote by Kevin Cashman: “Leaders get what they exhibit and what they tolerate.” While this may not endear me to some, it is an important point in the discussion of dealing with difficult employees. While the actions of a troubling employee must not be condoned, those in leadership positions can not be excused from their role in what is taking place either. Each party, the leader and the employee, have a responsibility to make change take place.

When reflecting on this subject, I thoroughly enjoyed reading a recent article by Thomas E. Ricks called “What Ever Happened to Accountability?” in the October 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review. Author of five books on the American military, Ricks writes about what happens when leaders do not fire underperforming executives. Using the U.S. Army as a case in point, Rick examines the changes in the army during the decades between World War II and Vietnam. Based on his new book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, Ricks explores in this article how a culture of high standards and accountability can deteriorate. He illuminates the contrast between General George C. Marshall, an unlikely figure of quiet resolve who became a classic transformational leader, and the disastrous generals of the Vietnam era.  As he writes, “the honesty and accountability of Marshall’s system were replaced by deceit and command indiscipline.” Citing the personnel equivalent of Gresham’s Law, Ricks notes “that bad leaders drive out good ones, and mediocrity can quickly become institutionalized.” 

This is a wonderful article which gives a brief but powerful history of the army since World War II. It also holds many important lessons for business leaders about the dangers of micromanagement and the importance of turning short term victories into strategic progress. For those of you who want to read the full article, here is a link:

Having the right people in the right jobs makes a tremendous difference in performance and profitability. This in combination with excellent leadership and accountability will make a profound difference.  

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

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