In Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin coined the saying as “The rotten Apple spoils his Companion.” We’ve come to know it as, “One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch."
But what about the good apples? Can a good apple have an equally opposite effect on the produce stand? How much influence can someone with positive energy, attitude and presence have on a team or working environment? If there is a Crabapple in the bunch, can a Honeycrisp apple help everyone overcome the Crabapple vibe?
That’s a lot of questions, and the answers can vary with each situation, but in general terms, the answer is, YES! Absolutely!
In my 40 plus years in the workforce, I’ve seen the damage that a negative co-worker, or manager, can bring to a team. But I’ve also seen the impact of what sincere, positive energy people bring as well.
It seems to be more difficult to bring morale and energy up, than it is to take it down. We all need to be mindful of this. Patience, and persistence is the key.
If you find yourself in a situation where a co-worker is creating a negative or hostile environment, the most important thing (and sometimes the most difficult thing) to remember is that responding with equal or greater amounts of the same emotion almost never works. Snapping at someone or chastising someone who is already in a bad place emotionally, will usually just aggravate the situation, and create more negative energy.
Picture a pendulum that swings back and forth, negative to positive, grouchy to fun, mean to kind. A forcefully applied response or demand to a bad attitude may fix a hostile or tension filled moment, but it rarely solves the problem, it just swings the pendulum to a more negative place. Understand that there is strength in patience and great power in kindness.
In ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, my favorite habit is #5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This book was written to help create success in business, but this is a habit we should saturate our daily lives with, at work, at home, no matter where we are.
I like to journal in the morning before I start my day, and the first line in my journal is born from #5:
Take a breath. Nothing that happens in my day can make me lose patience. Patience is MY virtue. Seek to understand.
Imagine a co-worker, we’ll call her Rebeca Ann Finkleheimer, or just Becky. Becky has days where it seems like she responds to every question with a sarcastic remark, or a sigh of impatience. This is just, “who Becky is. The team has gotten used to it, and obviously, it can be frustrating, but Becky isn’t going anywhere, so they avoid her as much as possible, and make the best of it. This is NOT a great strategy.
A good apple might ask Becky to join them for a cup of coffee and simply ask how she’s doing. This might sound overly simple, and maybe it is… but would it hurt to try? Over a cup of coffee, ask about Becky. You might be surprised at what you find out. Becky may have been grouchy for so long that the rest of the staff just ignores her. She feels isolated, she feels like she’s not part of the team, and she may even feel that the “bad apple” is the role she’s supposed to play. It is very easy to fall into a pattern. Maybe a Good Apple can interrupt the pattern.
In my career, I have worked with several highly successful salespeople. One of the most successful is an industry icon. He has worked for a handful of organizations, and every place he’s been, he has improved the business across all the measurables, and made positive changes to the culture as well. That’s how one becomes an icon! Icons can be a bit self-centered and can lean towards prima donna behavior (my personal favorite!!). We’ll call my “Icon”, Beauregard, or Beau, for short. Over a short period of time, Beau had become extremely disrespectful to other members of our team. He was short tempered, he hurled insults, and he never started a fresh pot of coffee after he poured himself the last cup. Come on man!
This team needed to collaborate daily, and while Beau was not the boss, he was looked up to by the team. Consequently, his behavior had negatively affected the team’s unity, and created a culture of tension and even a little fear. The other team members began to just avoid Beau. Obviously, avoidance doesn’t work in an environment that requires collaboration.
Take a breath… seek to understand.
Beau was leaving the sales division, and going into operations to finish out his career. I didn’t want his behavior to influence the rest of our team, and more so, I didn’t want that behavior to have a lasting influence on his legacy as a sales professional. I reached out to one of my mentors, explained the situation, and asked for a little coaching on how to address this without putting Beau on the defensive. I was advised to put the reason for Beau’s grumpiness on me:
“Beau, we’re looking at a new role for you, as you reach the finish line of an amazing career. You have become one of the most influential leaders in an industry stuffed full of great people (all true). I feel like these last several weeks, you’ve been unhappy, and the rest of the team feels that way too. Have I done something to create some aggravation? Am I doing something that triggers this unhappiness?
This opened a floodgate emotional dialog. Beau is terrified by the thought of a role change. Beau doesn’t know who he is, if he isn’t Beauregard Aloycius Von Hammershmidt of the A.C.M.E Flour & Packing Company (these names may, or may not, be fictional). So consequently, Beau had a bit of the blues. Oftentimes, when a real human person has the blues, their personality will turn red.
Beau didn’t want his legacy tarnished either (remember, prima donna). When his behavior was brought to light, he could look internally, and understand that he needed to make changes. As his manager, I could keep an eye out for triggers that created the emotional responses from Beau, and began navigating the transition to his new role much better.
The Rebecca Ann Finkleheimer, and Beauregard scenarios are general examples, “mosaics” of different people I’ve worked with, but these examples are common. In both cases, the Crabapple was affecting the barrel, the bunch, the team. This is where good leaders and simple acts of kindness and maybe a pinch of seeking to understand, can make all the difference. You don’t have to be a boss to be a leader.
Good apples can make a difference!
ASK A MENTOR
The next time you meet with your mentor, plan to share what you both have experienced in the work environment when a negative employee can bring down the morale of the team. And discuss whys you can prevent or manage them. Consider the following:
What strategies do you employ to keep calm in stressful situations with a negative co-worker?
What are your best practices for addressing negative behavior that is creating tension and fear in the work environment?
What conversations do you have with others to understand their point of view?