Dealing with deadbeats, downers and jerks at work

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I had two thoughts the other day when I was driving. One came when I was listening to the song “Clocks” by Coldplay. The lyrics include:

“Am I a part of the cure? Or am I part of the disease?”

The second was about the 1979 movie “Animal House,” one of the biggest money-making comedies of all time.

The movie follows the efforts of Dean Wormer, played by John Vernon, and his plan to rid Farber College of Delta Tau Chi, or Delta House. Wormer wants the students expelled and the fraternity closed because it consists of “bad apples” ruining the reputation of the college.

One scene has Delta members viewing the pictures of potential new recruits to the house to determine who gets to pledge. When a photo of Larry Kruger, played by Tom Hulce, comes on the screen, there is silence until one voice is heard to say, “We need the dues!”

These are two opposing forces at work.

One is college leadership trying to raise standards by cutting loose those students with less than stellar work ethics and associated behavior, demonstrated by their poor grade point averages.

The other is the fraternity doing what it has always been doing, pledging weaker students because it doesn’t know any other way to do things.

This same dynamic exists in many privately held companies.

Business owners, CEOs and entrepreneurs often work toward the goal of trying to raise their companies’ standards and results by attracting and retaining the best possible people. SpaceX is a company that adheres to this philosophy.

Leaders of this ilk constantly evaluate talent to see who needs to be asked to “step off the bus.” They also strive to make sure that the people on the bus are in the right seat and are being rewarded properly.

Managers are caught in the middle between the two forces: Leadership wants more done with and for less, and employees want more for doing the same or less.

To be sure, the fraternity brothers at Delta House were not all bad apples. But bad apples can exist at any level of a company.

A study titled The Progress Report was highlighted in The Wall Street Journal on the subject of the negative impact of “bad apples” in a company. The report spotlighted three general categories of this type of employee.

First are the deadbeats who work at less than their potential; these people are serial “withholders of effort.”

Second are the downers, individuals expressing negativity, pessimism, anxiety, insecurity and irritation at everything around them.

Third are the jerks, violating interpersonal norms of respect in their behavior toward others.

The study suggested that having just a single deadbeat, downer or jerk in a group can bring down performance of the group by 30 to 40 percent.

To illustrate, one retailer fired a top-producing salesman identified as a bad apple. After his departure, none of his former colleagues sold what he had. However, the store’s total sales shot up by nearly 30 percent.

One way to identify your “bad apples” is to have each individual in the company create a Mission to Mars group. This is an exercise from Jim Collin’s book “Good to Great.”

Done confidentially, it works like this:

Every employee in the company, without exception, is told that they are responsible for taking with them the very best people in the company to do their same job on Mars.

Because it is new territory, much will be expected of all who make the trip; it will not be an easy job and everyone onboard must produce.

There are only seven seats available on the rocket. One seat is assigned to the person picking the others. Each person is required to fill all six seats and only six seats, no exceptions.

Who is likely to be on the lists? The engaged, the hard working, the people in sync with company vision, values and mission statement, those with a strong work ethic, who have credibility with everyone, and are competent in what they do.

But the most important answer from this exercise is who is not on the lists.

When it comes to identifying and trying to turn things around with people who aren’t invested as much as they should be at your company, ask yourself if you are the cure, or the disease, enabling others to contribute less than they are capable.

Ken Keller is an executive coach who works with small and midsize B2B company owners, CEOs and entrepreneurs. He facilitates formal top executive peer groups for business expansion, including revenue growth, improved internal efficiencies, and greater profitability. Please contact him at [email protected]. Keller’s column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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