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Kenneth W. Keller: How to recognize the bad apples in the bunch

Inside Business

Posted: July 21, 2009 8:36 p.m.
Updated: July 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Twenty years ago, I joined a company where I reported to one of the vice presidents.

It didn’t take me too long to reach the conclusion that he was a terrific interviewer and represented the company well externally, but at the same time he was also a lousy leader, manager and supervisor.

What was most interesting aspect to me was his “Jekyll-and-Hyde” personality. Outside of work, he was funny, charming and friendly. Inside of work, he was selfish, lazy and uncommunicative. He was the kind of individual that would make a great neighbor but you wouldn’t want to work for him or even with him.  

Years later, I came to the conclusion that there is almost always someone on the leadership or management team of a midsize company who is 100-percent committed to the status quo. This person is against change because change means they have to give something up. This person acts more like a lazy bureaucrat than a leader, manager or supervisor, simply interested in taking all they can from the company.

What are the warning signs, the symptoms that a bad apple exists on your leadership team?

The first is that this person has to have a staff reporting to them. That does not mean that they manager or supervise; it is almost as if having people reporting to them is like a security blanket, providing some sort of cloak of importance and status.

The second is that they do not supervise those that report to them. Their subordinates never hear praise and rarely get direction or feedback. Performance appraisals are never done on time if they are done at all. Appraisals are done simply because the bad apple has been told to do them, “or else.” If there was no “or else,” they would not be done at all. If, as the owner, you suspect someone is a bad apple, ask subordinates to see the latest written performance appraisals they received. You will be hard pressed to see one in writing.

The third is that the bad apple is full of advice. It is always given verbally, never in writing. Putting something in writing commits them to a commitment of a thought, idea, concept or opinion; they avoid to extremes being held accountable.

Fourth, follow-up and follow-through is nonexistent. While always talking a good game, the bad apple simply does not honor commitments. It is as if the words were gone into the universe the second they were spoken, to be remembered by others but not by the bad apple. Deniability is always available when nothing is in writing.  

Fifth, a bad apple never fires anyone. Yes, they grumble about the mistakes that some of their subordinates make. They do this only because the subordinate has done something that has made the bad apple look bad. A bad apple doesn’t believe in training or educating subordinates; they believe in letting subordinates do their own thing. This is because it is too much work and too big of a hassle to actually spend more than the minimal amount of time interacting with subordinates.  

The sixth is that amazingly enough, this individual is against growing the company. That might be too harsh; they don’t care if the company grows as long as they don’t have to work any harder or are imposed upon if it should happen. However, they are not going to go out of their way for it to occur. What are they really against?

They are against any additional burden, work, effort, paperwork, meetings, travel, loss of vacation, sick days or imposition on anything that will prevent them from doing as little as possible for as much salary, bonus, benefits, vacation or sick days that they can get.

The bad apple sets a horrible example for others in the company. Some will quickly grasp the situation for what it is and simply ignore the bad apple. Others, unfortunately, will see this person as a member of the leadership team and emulate their behavior.

This will cause a rift in the company and the one thing an owner doesn’t need is another issue to deal with.

Sometimes the people that “got you here” won’t “get you there.” Bad apples aren’t tolerated in the supermarket and they aren’t tolerated at home. If you have a bad apple, what are you going to do about it?

Ken Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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