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Dori Wittenberg

Reminds me of an experience I had at church. Every Easter I worked with others to prepare Easter breakfast. Year after year I noticed the dishwasher silverware basket had a bad bacteria smell that never went away. Made me wonder why good smells fade and bad smells last forever. Like you said,
someone posted on a forum that it is nature's mechanism to detect the bad. In this case, bad bacteria. If the bad smell faded, it would be a health risk. I threw out the basket without even asking for permission to do so. Good smells do not last and that will keep the fragrance companies in business.

Very interesting article. I need more reflection, but I wonder how this would work as a teacher in a higher education classroom? And how would this work in a unionized environment where whether someone is kept is a job is controlled by a contract (and where performance evaluations are inadequate).


Is Bill Gates a "bad apple"? Or Rupert Murdock, or Charles Keating, or Dick Cheyney, or Richard M. Nixon, or William R. Hearst, or Kobe Bryant, or Kenneth Lay? I believe sometimes the "bad apple" may not only be the best employee, but may even be the founder of the company. In such a situation your advice would be considered suicidal.


Dear Bob. You just saved us students at Royal Norwegian Naval Academy for 48 pages of reading! This was much more to the point and gave us a brilliant overview of the text. Thanks!

Wearier but Wiser

I appreciated Mark Kiefaber's comment about "abdication of leadership". When a supervisor or manager avoids conflict by always "trying to see the best in everyone" instead of confronting toxic behaviour, it doesn't inspire anyone's respect. Workplaces need more leaders, not more enablers. If you can't handle the hard stuff, don't accept the job of overseeing people. Thanks again Bob Sutton, for a great post.


It is interesting to note that in 1981, the late Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa wrote in his book "Something Like an Autobiography" the following remarks made by his former school teacher on a similar topic for a student appointment. His teacher Mr Tachikawa remarked "...if we put someone who was not very good at the job now, that person would would be sure to shape up and prove worthy."

This was of course a mere observation only by his teacher who made those statement in Japan in the 1920s.

mark arnao

After learning many lessons many times over, i am vigilant about keeping good,positive people and removing the bad ,negative energy. I take on the biggest, meanest bully and break him or her down. They have a choice to get on the team or be miserable somewhere else. This message is clear. This is my team and we will be positive, respectful and productive...and most important..a highly effective team.

Mark Kiefaber, Focus Leadership, LLC

Bob: Terrific article. In my over 20 years or working in 360 degree feedback leadership programs, the item that ALWAYS has the lowest average score for a group is "confronts problem performance" or wording like that. We try to stress in these programs that not dealing with what you call "bad apples" is an abdication of leadership. Now I have more ammo to make that point even stronger. Thanks.

Chris Niccolls

Bob: This blog makes a truly great point about ensuring success on a project or a program. Negative factors or team mates can break a project. In my own experience, projects break because of a surplus of negative factors rather than a lack of positive factors.

Focusing on mitigating negative factors is an incredible tool for ensuring success. This is so obvious, that we often forget that we need to explicitly deal with these negative factors. GREAT BLOG!


"overwhelming strong bad stuff with lots of weak good stuff. I will discuss that approach at the end of this post."

You never did. You owe us that post ;)

Jamie Flinchbaugh

I do think it depends on the trait your are focused on, whether eliminating bad is more important than accentuating the good. However, for some vital traits, such as trust, this certainly seems true to me.

One person who deliberate manipulates their employees in deceptive ways (and gets caught doing it) will quickly erase 5 other managers who work in transparent ways. What's worse is that some bad managers actually know this and use it to their advantage. I recently was talking with someone who was dealing someone that was highly manipulative and deceptive. She was wondering how she could see through his "crap" and my answer was "become a cynic." That of course wasn't the answer she wanted. But this other person will always be better at manipulation than the trusting person will be at seeing through it. And the manipulating person knows it. That's the kind of bad apple you need to pick from the tree.

Matthew Freshman

Hi Bob,

Another fun article! Thanks...

Here's my question: Steve Jobs was an intense leader, demanding of his staff to the point that some would consider his behavior... negative (OK. I have heard many times from primary sources that his colleagues actually lived in constant fear). And yet this was only one theme among many of a complex and high performing executive. My question is whether Steve was a bad apple? Was his negative behavior useful? More importantly, how should colleagues respond? How about the board of directors?



I agree with this, but what can be done when one of the top managers is the bad apple? None of us on the lower rungs of the ladder can figure out how she stays in her position, but it is ruining our worklives, and ruining the business. Is our only solution to bail out, which most of us have already done?

Gonzalo Valdés

Hi Bob,

As a point supporting "Bad is stronger that good". I wanted to mention something I said in your doctoral seminar. While I was studying for the GRE Verbal, trying to memorize those thousands of words :-S , I could clearly saw that most words (don't know the exact proportion) of our language are use to denote "bad things" (adjs.), to refer to bad things (nouns), or to express bad actions/behavior (verbs)
... I get the feeling that this "bad is stronger" phenomenon is even reflected in our language!

Now, regarding you WSJ article, you advice to isolate the bad apple (if is not possible to "let it go")... but what's your advice if you can't isolate it... if is so much important to your business (a brilliant jerk), and it *must* interact constantly with others.
(e.g., imagine a brilliant professor attracting millions of dollars of funding, but making miserable his doctoral students, staff and other professors).

(my hint: I get the feeling that in this case you should attempt to change his behavior (have not idea how though)... this is related to what CindyOKeeffe was asking).




Great bracing reminder of why we need to step up to the hard stuff - dealing with the bad apples. I also like the focus on self-awareness; it's fundamental to my coaching work. Clients, however, have self-selected, so the execs that show up are relatively open to change. Have you seen any research indicating the percentage of people get that they "damn well better change" once theyrealize they're causing damage to others? I'd like to believe everyone would, but I'm guessing that's not the case.

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