A Core Issue

The Wall Street Journal this week, published a piece about the impact of “bad apples,” or toxic, lazy, or incompetent employees on the work place. It makes sense that a bad employee affects an organization more than a good employee. It’s basically the second law of thermodynamics for corporations. There is a tendency toward maximum entropy (disorder), so the the bad employee is simply going with the flow. A good employee is fighting against that tendency.

I’ve seen this in action in the past, in a number of environment, both big and small. In smaller organizations, the problem is generally dealt with more rapidly, although there was one individual years ago who was hired on reputation, but who’s only skill appeared to be criticizing the work of others. This went on for a while until someone in management realized that he hadn’t actually produced anything, and then he was gone. In larger corporations, toxic or incompetent employees tend to stick around, in larger numbers, for a much longer time. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is that HR and legal departments are extremely nervous. The slightest threat of litigation if not every i is dotted and t crossed. Therefore, elaborate processes are established, which allow the employee in question to just do well enough to not be terminated, but not actually become one of the strong employees. There are other reasons, as well, such as decisions being made fairly high up the management chain where the decision maker is too far removed from the actual operations, and a generally useless performance review process. I’ve even heard of situations where senior management makes ranking and merit increase decisions before evaluations have been written, thus ensuring that the direct supervisors have little input in the process and thereby eliminating one very effective tool for managing difficult employees.

What is interesting is that this situation, of a large number of bad apples, especially in larger organizations, came up at the end of last year, as I discussed here. The one issue I haven’t discussed regarding causes of the existence of bad apples, is that of training. There are plenty of bad apples who have absolutely no interest in improvement, but there are those employees who either start out wanting to improve, or wake up and smell the coffee and come to realize that they need to improve their skills. Unfortunately, especially in larger corporations, where actual process improvement to drive the lowering of costs is out of the question, the solutions are often the following: restrict travel, restrict cell phones, restrict training, and outsource. All of these force the short term improvement in the bottom line that drives most CEO’s. All of these, at the same time, can cripple in the long term.

So what does all of this have to do with the mission of InfoSynergetics? Well the first is simply a reality check. If one is going to engage in a project in any organization, especially a larger one, you have to be prepared to cope with the bad apples. I find it most useful to attempt to engage them head on. If they are toxic, don’t let them succeed with you. I had one situation where a somewhat toxic person involved with a project I was running would come in my office almost looking to pick a fight over some imagined slight. The more I refused to engage in either combat or becoming defensive, and merely sought to solve their problems, the quicker the relationship improved and the toxicity became less prominent. For employees who might not be very skilled, they present a worst case scenario from a systems standpoint. How can I design a system that will allow them to be functional in spite of their lack of skills? In some cases, the lack of skills is not actually in the area they get paid for, but more in the IT arena. While these people hardly fit the category of bad apples (they are usually very effective in their disciplines), they represent a similar challenge from a design perspective – and thus can help in the creation of a truly useful system.

So, I guess that the moral of the story is that while bad apples can be a drain on an organization, from a project and systems perspective, we can find them to be, if not beneficial, then at least not inhibitory in successful project execution. We need to anticipate their presence, and be prepared to adapt appropriately.

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