What Good Bosses Do With Bad Apples

Good Boss, Bad Boss

This is the second in a series excerpted from a new chapter in the paperback version of Good Boss, Bad Boss, a New York Times bestseller by Robert Sutton. Read the first installment, Are You A Power Poisoned Boss? here.

Making subtraction a way of life isn't a theme raised in Good Boss, Bad Boss, but as I began thinking about many of the main ideas, and Matthew May's great book In Pursuit of Elegance, I realized that great bosses have a "subtraction mind-set." They are always looking to remove bad or necessary things.

As we know, "bad is stronger than good." Getting rid of bad people is probably even more crucial than bringing in great people. We saw, for example, how Paul Purcell enforces the "no-asshole rule" at Baird. Removing selfish jerks has not only made Baird a civilized place but has helped keep it on Fortune's Top 100 Best Companies to Work For list since 2004. And it has helped Baird grow and improve profits in recent years even as many other financial services firms faltered and failed.

When I speak to managers and executives, rotten apples provoke especially strong reactions. At the gathering of high-tech CEOs mentioned above, there was an interesting 90-minute stretch where each described "what keeps me up at night." One said it was a star executive who brought in a lot of business but was driving away good people. There was consensus among his fellow CEOs that "we all have seen this movie before" and they all learned, after firing someone like that, "You always ask yourself, why did I wait so long? Things are so much better now!"

Another way some bosses deal with rotten apples—especially those with skills that are tough to replace or who have so much job security they are impossible to fire—is to "subtract them" physically, to isolate them so they don't infect others. As I wrote in a Wall Street Journal article: "In one organization, there was a deeply skilled and incredibly nasty engineer whom leaders could not bring themselves to fire. So, they rented a beautiful private office for him several blocks from the building where his colleagues worked. His coworkers were a lot happier—and so was he, since he preferred working alone."

Bad apples aren't the only thing that great bosses remove.

Cumbersome rules and procedures waste time and energy—so great bosses find ways to simplify and eliminate them. After the General Motors bankruptcy in 2009, CEO Rick Wagoner was fired and replaced with Ed Whitacre. He immediately started slashing away at GM's maze of irratio- nal and ingrained procedures—such as cutting the num- ber of reports prepared by his research group from ninety-four to four per year. Whitacre's blazingly obvious belief was doing so would allow researchers to spend more time researching and less time writing reports.

Good bosses don't just get rid of bad things like rotten apples and idiotic rules and procedures. They know that too much of good thing can be terrible, too—because humans have limited cognitive and emotional capacities. So anything that can be done to remove unnecessary or less important demands can enhance performance on the chores that matter most. This is one reason the best bosses shield their charges from unnecessary work and interruptions—even fun and interesting ones. I dug up an intriguing remedy that Intel experimented with, which I wrote about in the Harvard Business Review:

In 2008, 300 engineers and managers at semiconductor giant Intel participated in a pilot program where, for four hours every Tuesday morning, they set their e-mail and IM clients to "offline," directed phone calls to voice mail, avoided scheduling meetings, and isolated themselves from visitors by putting "do not disturb" signs at the entrances to their workspaces. This "thinking time" program was run by engineer Nathan Zeldes, who reported it enhanced "effectiveness, efficiency and quality of life for numerous employees"; 71% of participants recommended that it be extended to other groups.

Good Boss, Bad BossThis "too much of a good thing" problem also applies to procedures. Too often, the underlying idea is sound, but they are overly complex and time-consuming. JetBlue executive Bonny Simi and her team overhauled their performance-review process. They scrapped the old evaluation form, which took two hours to complete, and replaced it with one that took 20 minutes. Bonny emphasized that the basic categories and links to corporate goals on the old form were retained because they were useful—but massively simplified.

The lesson here isn't so much about these specific subtraction stories, even if they are instructive. Rather, it is about the subtraction mind-set, that every boss ought to keep searching for things to remove and simplify—and ways to make life less frustrating and annoying. Great bosses live the motto "When in doubt, take it out."

[Image: Flickr user MrB-MMX]

Add New Comment


  • Ivan Latysh

      Good article and excellent ideas, but practically who is a bad apple in the snake pit? A bunny or the snakes? Bad vs Good is very subjective and relative ...
      While in theory Robert is right, in practice you want to keep the same-kind of people together, does not matter how bad/good they are, just the same kind.

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    I'm a big fan of keeping it simple. Interestingly, it's more of a challenge to craft a shorter, more elegant concept than to create a long-winded one, yet it is significantly more powerful.
    As to people, I was at an event  few weeks ago and heard the same advice echoed by three different entrepreneurs: slow to hire, quick to fire (especially troublesome employees)
    David Kaiser, PhD
    Executive Coach

    "Time to be Extraordinary"

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    I'm a big fan of keeping it simple. Interestingly, it's more of a challenge to craft a shorter, more elegant concept than to create a long-winded one, yet it is significantly more powerful.

    As to people, I was at an event  few weeks ago and heard the same advice echoed by three different entrepreneurs: slow to hire, quick to fire (especially troublesome employees)

    David Kaiser, PhDExecutive Coachwww.DarkMatterConsulting...."Time to be Extraordinary"

  • Judy Dobles

    The key message for any supervisor or leader is -- take action.  You own the good and the bad.  You must determine the right path forward and do it.  The more senior you are, the more problems and uncomfortable situations you face every day.  A junior staff person once told me, "Even for a million dollars I would not want your job, too many problems."  I replied,  "First, I get paid much, much less than a million dollars, but it is the nature of my job.  My job is to solve issues and problems that are complicated. It is a great feeling when the team and I find the right solutions and the problems are eliminated."

  • fhc gsps

    i've worked with and for more "bad apples". it's not HR trying to save everyone...it's cowardly hiring managers who are afraid to fire these nasty employees. hiring managers would rather put up with the bad, destructive behavior than have to go through the trouble of finding someone new, slowing down process, onboarding a new employee and revamping a team. so they let the abuse continue.

  • Jim SMith

    This country is obsessed with HR types trying to save everyone. Where the loyalty to the investor.  If after a reasonable ( meaning brief and direct and following all the rules) counseling  the employee doesn't change, then pull the trigger.  The best advice I ever received from a management consultant was: "It's not the people you fire who get you into trouble, it's the ones you don't"

  • Tim Taylor

    I think the real issue is one of stewardship and governance. Who is minding the store when bad managers are allowed to roam freely, tarnishing the reputation of the corporate entity and damaging those who have to work for them.

    I have seen too many “work-a-rounds” because they are a producer or because they have special knowledge.

    As Leaders we set, or we sign up to, a set of values that we believe will produce the culture that will give our organisation a competitive advantage. All too often we hurry past the opportunity to defend these values, or we choose to ignore poor behaviour because of sterling financial performance.

    Time to wake up. We let it happen, there is no “them”!

  • R Michael Small

    It would be equally interesting to read "What Bad Bosses Do With Good Apples". 

  • fhc gsps

     that's easy...they're usually threatened by them, so the good apples get terminated.

  • Rita Ashley

    While the article is spot on I can't help but wonder, at what point does mentoring have to stop and firing/subtraction start? A pros/cons list is so subjective. In your view, is there a trigger point? Most senior executives are measured by the turn over in their groups and ability to mentor. How do they decide it is time to cut their losses and take the hit to their own review? Most senior execs will reveal firing someone is the hardest part of their job. They see it as a personal failure. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, so does their boss.

  • Ray El

    Sometimes people have good intentions when it comes to weeding out bad apples, but a huge problem with many people in leadership roles is that they continually revert to the default setting of what they think is the right way to do things. 

    Some of the managers where I work are obsessed with having meetings because they think it leads to better communication. We often have teleconferences with people where most of the time on the call is spent asking people if they have anything they want to talk about because nobody thought to ask if anybody actually needed the teleconference before they invited 10 people to join it. 

    I've become brazen enough to tell managers that these meetings are a waste of time and have offered many suggestions on how they could be held in more efficient ways. While they are typically willing to listen and try new ideas, within a few weeks, the old patterns emerge and we go right back to the same inefficient, marathon group meetings as before because that's what they know. 

    It also doesn't help when a manger is overly sympathetic. The least productive and most troublesome bad apple in our department could have and should have been fired many times. But she recently got divorced and is sharing custody of her kids and that is a touchy subject for her boss, who has a family member going through the same thing. So the bad apple keeps her job not based on her performance, but because her manager is being too sympathetic to fire her. So instead of expecting her performance to improve, their solution is to give some of her work to other people to accommodate the fact that she's too distracted with her personal life to be able to do as much work as everyone else. Imagine what that has done to other people's productivity. To avoid upsetting one bad apple, they're destroying the morale and productivity of the entire department.