Leadership is Key to Working with a Bad Apple

Several weeks ago, I kicked off a mini-series about Bad Apples. My blogging break notwithstanding, I aim to get back to it.

I’m involved in several different social groups, all of which seem to be going through changes. So I’m seeing new people enter new circles. Most are great, but some struggle to find their place. Even fewer seem to be officially Bad Apples. You know the type. Bad Apples seem to be disruptive for the sake of being disruptive, intent on pushing their way into the social fabric all the while alienating established members of the group. I used to think it was my personal job to bring these people back down to earth. Mostly these days I watch with interest. My primary interest is the impact on the people around them. The bad behavior of one Bad Apple seems to spread like a virus. In other words, one Bad Apple really does spoil the whole bunch.

Here’s what I mean: A new person enters a group. Maybe he was brought to the table by other members who didn’t know his… ahem… quirks. Then, New Guy starts exhibiting Bad Apple behavior: talking over top of people, making everything about himself, belittling other’s skills and contributions, and so on. A funny thing happens. Formerly happy and productive contributing members of the group start to react with Bad Apple behavior of their own. I recently watched a quite talented long term member of one of my groups vehemently defend a step in the process that she had championed changing one week earlier because this week, Bad Apple guy said it was dumb.

It brings to mind a quote that I’ve recently heard: “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” I’ve seen this quote attributed to Gruenter and Whitaker, though I have no idea who they are. Origins aside, the quote illustrates the importance of leadership in creating an environment where everyone feels safe to contribute. If the uncertainty introduced by the behavior of a Bad Apple is not addressed by leadership, the performance of the group – and perhaps the longevity of the group itself – will be compromised.

Seeking Disorder

To say that this week has been “off” for me would be an understatement. Earlier this week I was apathetic about being apathetic. Later in the week I rashly injected some excitement into things by tearing a page out of the book of my youth. I think the two might be subconsciously related.

On Monday of this week I had a blog post 99% written about how I was having a ho-hum start back from vacation. On the work front, one of my team members did a great job of covering for me while I was at the beach. We have also been in a nice and predictable state of affairs in my department for some time, so I was feeling a bit apathetic about my transition back to work. On a personal front, things have also been very smooth. My wife and I have settled into the most comfortable relationship of our lives. We know what to expect from one another, we don’t harbor grudges or nitpick, and we work together to achieve a well-run household. But at the moment, we’re not striving for anything either. She’s between college classes, the kids are in a lull with their schedules, we’re done with vacation for a while, I’m not actively training for any upcoming races, so there isn’t a “next big thing” to work toward. As I was putting the finishing touches on that “things-are-going-too-smooth” blog post, my boss called to give me 5 new short-term assignments. Twenty minutes later, I opened the mail to find that I received a traffic citation by camera in a tiny village I drove through several weeks ago. The citation feels like a scam for various reasons so I’ll need to investigate further. So… I suppose the lesson here is if you’re feeling a little too bored about things going well, start saying it and the universe will deliver some excitement. None of it made me mad though. I actually welcomed the immediate purpose of the “to do” list.

Now nearing the end of this week, I’ve taken care of most of those new assignments, but I think there is still something brewing under the surface. On Tuesday, we were out with some friends and – while I don’t want to get into any details – I took some uncharacteristic risks that I’m not at all proud of. Then on Wednesday, I played in a league game with my soccer team and it got a little physical. Instead of brushing it off like I have come to do in my older, wiser days, I got “involved.” I wound up getting into a verbal battle and an under-the-referee-radar physical altercation with one particularly hot-headed center back. This is not who I am. At least it hasn’t been for the last 10 years.

So in the immortal words of Marvin Gaye, “What’s going on?” How on earth did I go from a calm dude before vacation to easing back into work to uncharacteristically risky behavior to a war of words and wrestling moves with a Cro-Magnon center back in the span of a few days? And more importantly, why?

I’ll probably need to do some additional soul searching on the topic, but I have a feeling that after having a few weeks of calm, quiet order, I’m actually craving some disorder. That’s bananas, isn’t it? But as I think about it, it seems to fit. At every given moment of every given day, I have everything I need. I’m not saying I’m rich and don’t want for anything, but I have a home, a healthy family, a loving wife, nutritious food in the pantry, clean water to drink, self-actualizing work, the freedom of self-expression, the ability to pay my bills and so on. On top of that, I’ve had an eventful first half of the year with several exciting trips and plenty of fun. The last few weeks have been almost mind-numbingly smooth. How on earth can there be any malcontent sown from any of that? But I am mindful enough to know that I’m currently walking around with a chip on my shoulder. Is it really so basic? Do I want what I do not have, even when what I have is at its essence, exactly what I want?

The mind is a funny thing.