#205: The Disastrous Effect of One Bad Apple on Your Organization

Out behind the farmhouse was the root cellar grandpa built for grandma. It was big enough to store all the delicate fruits and vegetables that needed protection from the searing sun of eastern Washington.

Apple Attitude

In the back of the cellar was a barrel of Washington Delicious apples. Grandma used to pick apples at nearby farms and store the apples in the root cellar. She would inspect every apple as she placed it in the barrel because, as she told me, one bad apple would cause all the rest of the apples in the barrel to rot. Thus, the wisdom of the saying, “One bad apple spoils the whole barrel.”

It turns out the same thing is true for organizations. One bad apple, one person with a bad attitude, can have a disastrous effect on your organization!

How to Recognize the Bad Attitude Apple

Most of us past the age of four can identify someone with a bad attitude. They are easy to spot because their attitude is displayed through their words and actions. They are negative, critical, grumpy, impatient, arrogant, self-centered, and on and on.

In an organization, these are the people who complain about everything. They spread gossip. They talk about others behind their backs. And when the bad attitude is severe enough, they will even undermine the authority of the leadership.

I’ve seen it play out in large and small companies, work teams, non-profit organizations, and even in church groups. No organization is exempt from the decay brought on by the bad attitude apple.

What Causes the Bad Attitude?

It is important for us as leaders to understand what causes a bad attitude. The Bible says our actions reflect the condition of our heart.

“For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7).

Solomon taught the actions of a man reflected his heart.

“As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man” (Proverbs 27:9).

In other words, a bad heart causes a bad attitude. As a leader, there is very little you can do to affect change in someone else’s heart.

What to do About a Bad Attitude Apple

If you’ve ever struggled with a bad attitude yourself, you know someone else can’t force you to change how you feel. That change must come from inside you. You have to perform heart surgery!

The same is true for the bad attitude apples in your organization; they have to want to change. They have to be willing to perform heart surgery on themselves.

That said, there are three things you can and should do as a leader to help them:

1) Be a coach. A coach is an instructor or teacher. Sometimes people don’t realize how their bad attitude is being expressed so let them know how their attitude is affecting the organization.

2) Be a mentor. A mentor is a trusted advisor or guide. Knowing is different from doing. By mentoring someone with a bad attitude, you can help them recognize their bad behavior and focus on being more positive.

3) Be an example. Most important of all, as a leader, you must be a role model. Your life must set an example of the right kind of attitude. Your attitude, according to Paul, should be the same as Jesus, a humble servant obedient to God.

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!” Philippians 2:5-8 (NIV).

A bad attitude apple can have a disastrous effect on an organization. As a leader, you can’t afford to ignore the bad apple. You need to take action before their attitude spreads to the rest of the organization. A leader guided by the Holy Spirit can be a catalyst for attitudinal change. Be a coach, be a mentor, be an example, and be the powerful, inspired leader God intends you to be!.

Join the Conversation

As always, questions and comments are welcome. Have you worked with someone who had a bad attitude? How did his/her attitude affect the organization? How did you deal with the person?

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Category: Relationships | Interpersonal Relationships



Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • John says:

    I’ve dealt with a few bad apples in my law enforcement career. We were able to turn a few around through mentorship, but several were not savable. They became like cancers, spreading their negativity. I found that regular engagement with the troops (management by walking around, attending roll calls) made it harder for the negative nellies to spread their venom. The majority soon tired of their complaining and the bad apples moved on.

    • Ron says:

      Great point about the positive effects of strong mentorship. I like the idea of high visibility of leaders limiting the impact of the bad apples. The more the troops see the example of strong leaders the better!

  • Ben Thornton says:

    I really like the three step plan you lay out in order to “cure” bad apples. I am a lead at mexicali and I see “bad apples” at work all the time. I have seen all kinds of people who work with bad attitudes and I have seen people who totally embrace the three step fix and are able to fix attitudes and I have also seen people try to meet anger with anger and it never ends up working out for the people who are having arguments. I like the steps you laid out because they are easy to follow and then if you try the previously mentioned steps and the people still don’t improve their attitude, at least I know that I tried to make a difference.

    • Ron says:

      I have seen anger rear it’s nasty head many times in the workplace and seldom, if ever, does it lead to a positive outcome! Meeting anger with anger is the least effective way to deal with a bad apple.

  • Ashley Osborne says:

    I have definitely worked with someone who had a bad attitude. If the bad apple is not addressed, they begin to rub off on the rest of the team members and create a “norm” for how the team or workers perceive their work or job. This bad or negative attitude can be contagious and easy to latch on to. I really like the 3 steps that you have given for how to help mend the heart of a bad apple. I agree that the solution to fixing a bad apple in an organization is to try to help change their heart but this has to start with them wanting to change. I think these 3 steps are essential for sparking change to their hearts and attitudes overall. Change comes after consistency and persistence and I think that bad apples might not have immediate results, but if you follow the 3 steps you suggest, then some kind of transformation will take place.

  • Kelsey Hager says:

    I enjoyed reading about this topic because it is true, if you hang out with a grumpy person for too long, soon you will start to unconsciously pick up their attitude and will start seeing things through a negative lens. This reminds me of how important it is to surround yourself with positive people because joyful attitudes are contagious and happy people are more successful. I agree with your point that grumpy people need to want to change on their own and for that reason, I have always thought setting a positive example was the only way to get them to change. However, after this discussion I have become aware of how important mentoring and coaching are also. When someone has a negative attitude it is so easy to isolate yourself from him or her but I am reminded that we should work with them to inspire change just as God would.

    • Ron says:

      I agree Kelsey – it doesn’t take long for the bad attitude of one person to rub off on us. I’ve had to watch myself around a couple of people during my career who were always negative and it affected the entire team’s attitude.

  • Allison Pepper says:

    This post was such a good reminder that a bad attitude comes from our own hearts–and sometimes that means we need check our own hearts. When it comes to being a leader, I agree with you completely that the most important thing is to lead by example. We are called by Christ to live our lives for Him and are called to be a light for Him. We can do this by living as an example.

  • Megan Clements says:

    The point you made about how you cannot ignore the bad apple is a good one. A few times in my life I have ignored someone who was being a bad apple, and this just escalated. I should have taken your first point and should have been a coach to them, and pointed out their bad attitude.

    • Ron Kelleher says:

      As hard as it is to confront the bad apple, I have never seen one get better on their own. Some intervention has always been the starting point to turning the bad apple around.

  • Rachel Wasko says:

    This was a great article and such a good reminder. I think it is important to remember that a bad attitude is simply the symptom of something much deeper– the heart. If you do not fix the condition of your heart it is much much harder to fix a bad attitude. We must be aware of how our actions and attitudes influence those around us because often times we have more of an impact than we think!