Are You Working With Energizers or Rotten Apples?

In this excerpt from GOOD BOSS, BAD BOSS: How to Be the Best … and Learn from the Worst, Robert Sutton tells us about those employees that elevate an office, and those deadbeats and downers that can destroy a company.


Good Boss, Bad BossBring on the Energizers

Rob Cross studies social networks: how information, ideas, and influence travel through the Web of relationships that compose every team and organization. A few years back, Rob and his colleagues were designing a survey to map the connections among employees within several big companies. They wanted to identify what kinds of employees were top performers and brought out the best in others. They hypothesized that people who were renowned for having expertise, spreading technical knowledge, and best positioned to gather and weave together information from others would be seen as top performers. At a professional services firm they were studying, an executive argued they were missing something:


We have some of the brightest consultants in the world here. But some are more successful than others, and it has much more to do with what I call buzz than a slight difference in IQ. Our high performers create enthusiasm for things. … They create energy, and even though this is intangible it generates client sales and follow-on work as well as gets other people here engaged in and supportive of what they are doing.

Inspired by this insight, they added a simple question to their survey: “People can affect the energy and enthusiasm we have at work in various ways. Interactions with some people can leave you feeling drained while others can leave you feeling enthused about possibilities. When you interact with each person below, how does it typically affect your energy level?” The possible answers were: 1 = de-energizing; 2 = no effect/neutral; or 3 = energizing. The colleagues in their team or business were then listed, and each was rated by every coworker.

Rob and his fellow researchers were stunned by how strongly this “energy” question predicted performance evaluations and promotions, and whether people stayed with or left an organization. They also found that the most successful teams and organizations had networks filled with interconnected energizers. Cross and his colleagues have since dug into the kinds of people who are energizers and why they succeed. “Energizers” aren’t necessarily charismatic and bubbly; on the surface, many are understated and rather shy. But all create energy via optimism about the possibilities ahead, fully engaging the person right in front of them right now, valuing others’ ideas, and helping people feel as if they are making progress.

The late Gordon MacKenzie held a position at Hallmark Cards as “the Creative Paradox.” MacKenzie was a successful designer, led innovative design teams, and taught inspiring creativity workshops to everyone from kindergarteners to CEOs. In Orbiting the Giant Hairball, MacKenzie described how he sparked positive energy when he was Hallmark’s Creative Paradox:

I became a liaison between the chaos of creativity and the discipline of business. I had no job description and a title that made no sense, but people started coming to me with their ideas, and I would listen to those ideas and validate them. When you validate a person, what you’re really doing is giving them power–like a battery charger.

Again, energizers don’t need to be bubbly or exciting. When I think of a soft-spoken energizer, Lenny Mendonca comes to mind, a partner at McKinsey who has held senior positions including head of the strategy practice and chair of the McKinsey Global Institute. Before I met Lenny, my stereotype of McKinsey partners was they were smoothtalking egomaniacs. Lenny is exactly the opposite. I remember a great dinner that my colleague Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao and I had with Lenny at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company (which Lenny owns). Huggy and I were touched by how encouraging and constructive Lenny had been about research we were pursuing. Huggy, an astute observer, pointed out how closely Lenny listened, how he saw possible value in every person and every idea and– unlike the two of us–rarely interrupted. Huggy and I are just two of Lenny’s fans; he has the same energizing effect on everyone who knows him.

Rotten Apples: Bad Is Stronger Than Good

Unfortunately, accentuating the positive isn’t enough. The best bosses do more than charge up people, and recruit and breed energizers. They eliminate the negative, because even a few bad apples and destructive acts can undermine many good people and constructive acts. The case for reforming or, failing that, expelling the worst offenders is bolstered by Will Felps’s research on “bad apples.” Felps and his colleagues studied what I call deadbeats (“withholders of effort”), downers (who “express pessimism, anxiety, insecurity, and irritation,” a toxic breed of de-energizer), and assholes (who violate “interpersonal norms of respect”). Felps estimates that teams with just one deadbeat, downer, or asshole suffer a performance disadvantage of 30 to 40 percent compared to teams that have no bad apples.

These rotten apples are so destructive because “bad is stronger than good.” For most people, negative thoughts, feelings, and events produce larger and longer-lasting effects than positive ones. Research on romantic relationships shows that unless positive interactions outnumber negative interactions by five to one, chances the relationship will succeed are slim. When the proportion of negative interactions exceeds this “five-to-one rule,” marital satisfaction goes way down and the divorce rate goes way up. Similarly, a study that tracked employees’ moods found that the impact of negative interactions with bosses and coworkers on employees’ feelings were five times stronger than positive interactions. Negative interactions (and the bad apples who provoke them) pack such a wallop in close relationships because they are so distracting, emotionally draining, and deflating. When a group does interdependent work, rotten apples drag down and infect
everyone else. Unfortunately, grumpiness, nastiness, laziness, and stupidity are remarkably contagious.


The upshot is that as a boss, you can’t wait very long to see if these destructive characters will mend their ways. You need to intervene quickly. If pointed and persistent feedback fails, do everything you can to expel the bad apple. A few years back, I was teaching student teams working with Wal-Mart to help frontline employees become more aware of the environmental impact of the products they sold. The project had tight deadlines and a high-pressure presentation for executives. One team complained that a member had missed most meetings and wasn’t doing any work. When I talked to him, he admitted to “blowing off” his team because he was busy interviewing for Rhodes Scholarship and a job at Google–but insisted he was so talented that he deserved to stay on the team. This student thought he was so smart that he didn’t need to do any work. But he was just a rotten apple. He dropped the class once I convinced him he was headed for a lousy grade. The team went on to do wonderful work, and the deadbeat did not get the Rhodes Scholarship or the Google job.

Are You Hiring and Breeding Greedy and Selfish Employees? Take the Quiz

This is an excerpt from GOOD BOSS, BAD BOSS: How to Be the Best … and Learn from the Worst by Robert I. Sutton, PhD. Copyright © 2010 by Robert Sutton. Reprinted by permission of Business Plus, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

About the author

Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford and a Professor of Organizational Behavior, by courtesy, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Sutton studies innovation, leaders and bosses, evidence-based management, the links between knowledge and organizational action, and workplace civility