Rotten Apples

Dr Ivan Joseph
January 17, 2021

One of the things that will really lead you to success is the company you keep. You’ve often heard me repeat the mantra, “Get away from the people who will tear you down.” This is critical in leadership.

The Law of the Rotten Apple

Have you ever noticed that if you buy a bag of fruit and you’re not very careful checking it over, one might be a little soft or a little fuzzy? Then, after you’ve brought it home, another becomes a little mushy. Before you know it, the whole bag is ruined.

I’m not exactly sure how it works. One tiny spot rots the entire fruit and then spreads like a virus to the entire bag ruining your whole purchase. Sure enough, if you don’t take care of that one fruit right away by removing it from the bag, your entire package is ruined, and there will be no pie. But, if you get to it early, it’s like nothing happened. It really is quite amazing.

In one of his books about the laws of leadership, Jonathan Maxwell calls this the Law of the Rotten Apple. I’ve often thought of this principle as it applies to the culture of your organization. Toxicity can spread like wildfire impacting the positive culture, norms and values you want to build in your team. One negative, critical personality looks for a partner: “Did you see how she picked him for the team?;” or, “Did you hear what he said after her comment?” That sour apple is looking for validity—looking for an ally to share their perspective. Quickly, two become three, and three become six. Soon, you’ve got a critical mass—a faction sowing discontent as grumblings throughout the organization. I believe leaders need to make every effort to address this immediately. First through coaching. Then through performance management. And, ultimately, by removing them from the organization, if the previous steps are ineffective. Sometimes it’s hard to do. Especially when those people are very talented. They might be your leading sales performer—your closer. Or, often in my case, as a coach, my best goal scorer, playmaker or goalie could be identified as the one spreading the gossip, or laziness or doubt.

The unwillingness to address toxicity and unwanted behaviors is an implicit endorsement that these are the values that we operate under no matter what we write about or speak to.

It’s really important to address this head on, especially on a young team that doesn’t have a seasoned, strong sense of leadership. If you have a seasoned core of leaders, they will address this—it will remain a lone voice. If you bring in several, or they’ve built enough momentum that they’re significant; they can overwhelm the culture that you’ve worked hard to establish. It’s important that you step in as a leader and provide assistance to the people who are trying to manage these individuals’ behaviors.

Let me note:  when I refer to a toxic culture, I’m not talking about being critical. I’m talking about the negative, sour people who whisper in the shadows after a meeting. Those who avoid direct conflict rather than transparently generate discussion in a generous way.

Culture is an intentionally created state.

We must be purposeful in identifying the behaviors that we want to see demonstrated across our organization; and, we must also reinforce these behaviors when we see them being displayed in order to promote the likelihood that they will be repeated.

I’ll share a story from my experience as a University Coach. There was a year when I was a minute away from qualifying for our very first national tournament. We ended up losing in overtime. That team had seven outstanding freshmen. It was the first team that had sons of World Cup players and Junior National Team players. It was an exciting group. As good as we were, that team did not believe in me as a coach and leader. 

They felt that their achievements were all because of individual talents. They looked down at the less talented players who worked hard and were willing to do the things that were unseen that added value to our team; and instead, viewed those contributions as having less merit. The relationship came to a head, and I was forced to address it. I created some boundaries and some expectations of what it would take if those freshmen wanted to remain a part of our team moving forward. Long story short, all but one of them quit that very same day. They left the program believing that we would not be able to achieve our goals without them. I would be lying if I said the next year was easy. In fact, we may have had a losing record.

Fast forward to when that player who stuck with us was a senior. We won our first ever national championship. I have no doubt in my mind, the team’s success was because of the decisions I made four years previously about defining who we would be as individuals, and what we would stand for together as a team. Our culture embedded loyalty, hard work and service above talent; and, that made all the difference.

When building your organization, don’t let culture be an afterthought.

Be intentional about what values you are praising and which individuals you are promoting into leadership positions. Be careful not to be lured away by the immediate, flashy signals of success. Culture isn’t built overnight; but, it can be sustained with minimum effort when you put in the work on the front end by developing your people and guarding carefully who you choose to associate with.

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