I am borrowing some lessons from the mathematics I was taught at school, to explore an aspect of teamwork that, in my opinion, all companies will need to consider as they navigate the future, especially if they have neglected to do so to date both before and during lockdown.
The bad apple principle
One of the first aspects of teamwork I remember grappling with was the bad apple principle. It never made sense to me how one bad element in a team, classroom or company, could have such a downward impact on many good elements. All it took was for a team to have one bad apple and the team would get dragged down. This principle was one of my motivators for entering into team development, as I believed it was both necessary and relatively easy to solve.
Many years later, while observing an actual bowl of apples which included one bad one, I noticed something critical about the bad apple – it was active. The good ones were lying still. It dawned on me that this is what made the bad apple principle possible. A negative active influence will dominate positive passive influence no matter the ratio.
My own experience of bad apples was coupled with noticing bad apple leadership. Bad apple leadership is when a leader, parent, teacher, lecturer, politician, law-maker focuses their attention on the bad apple and neglects to lead the good apples. The bad influence begins to dominate. The bulk of the leadership effort goes into attempting to address and fix this influence while believing that the good influence can be relied upon to remain. Such leaders tend to operate with the view that when something is not broken, why change it.
In a team, this negativity is felt. The conversations tend to centre around the so-called non-conformists and guilty “bad apple leaders”, use the bad as a means to describe the whole and to justify draconian measures. Can you recall such a time? A time when the group was punished due to the behaviour of one or two team members who transgressed.
Lowest Common Denominator
The Lowest Common Denominator or bad apple should not be allowed to determine the whole.
Leaders will make life easier for themselves if they focus specific attention on addressing destructive behaviours AND specific attention on developing constructive behaviours. Leaders should avoid getting sucked into that draining pit associated with the energy that goes into changing the bad apple in the team.
The term “good to great” for me holds an extremely important lesson. To me, it means focussing on the good people and make them great. It suggests moving away from only focussing on the bad people trying to make them good.
Highest Common Multiple
The Highest Common Multiple in teams will only be possible when leaders attend to developing the good.
When they integrate the good elements into well-integrated good teams. ‘Together everyone achieves more’ is only possible when the teamwork works through combining and ensuring that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
All will be revealed
Lockdown and your results prior to lockdown will reveal where and what the good is that you as a leader can develop.
The lowest denominators and the bad apples will have been revealed too. We perpetuate the belief that blame is a viable life operating principle when leaders take on the draining task of ‘begging’ and ‘pleading’ the lowest-performing members of their teams to join in and connect. Let them go. Leaders who do this send the message to these individuals that the leader is solely responsible for the team member – if it is not a partnership then it is not worth keeping. (In a similar way I do not support working for a leader who does not cultivate partnerships.)
Each person has to accept the role personal responsibility plays in their life story. Your approach to parenting will influence the degree to which your children develop this life-skill. Your approach to team leadership will influence the degree to which your team members develop this life-skill. Your capacity and available energy to invest in your good apples is up to you. Avoid blaming your bad apples for not having any energy left.
Develop the good
When more might have to be achieved with less after lockdown, start by developing a strategy to take your good to new and higher levels. If you have to choose, focus on developing the good. Make the good active and drown out the bad. Make it intolerable for the bad to continue their bad trajectory. Make them choose to join in the positive way or leave. Do not allow the bad apple to determine the way forward for the many more good apples, no matter the context.
May it be so that our politicians unlock the power of the rainbow.
May it be so that our business leaders unlock the power of the South African resilience and creativity.
May it be so that our spiritual leaders unlock the power of love for fellow human beings and for ending suffering throughout creation.
May it be so that our parents unlock the power of responsible citizenship for all youngsters under their care.
May it be that each person unlocks the power inherent in them to do good, to be responsible, to love, to end suffering, to be resilient, to be creative and to shine even during a storm with the least amount of sunshine.
May this be so even if past leadership experience has failed people.