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Published 11/1/2010
Dale A. Reigle

Workplace bad apples

A rotten attitude can undermine teamwork

Does one bad apple spoil the whole barrel? Many times, yes, especially in a work environment where success relies upon interdependent activities among staff. So how do you identify a bad apple on your staff?

Bad apples come in an assortment of varieties; following are descriptions of the most common.

The crab apple
The crab apple is always putting others down to raise her own status. She makes sure that the doctor is aware of every mistake made by her coworkers. She keeps score of perceived transgressions against her, punctuates her communications with dramatic sighs and gestures, and demeans other staff members.

To maintain her special relationship with the doctor, she tries to keep other employees from interacting directly with him. Every message and piece of paper has to go through her. She hoards knowledge about the physician and how he likes the clinic to run. Before long, other staff will start to avoid her…and the doctor.

Often the very behavior that makes this type of employee detrimental to the team will ingratiate her with “her doctor.” The physician is likely to appreciate her dedication and resist efforts to discipline or remove her. Crab apples are best suited for a solo practice setting.

The sour apple
The sour apple is always depressed. He believes everything is going to fail and makes sure everyone hears it. He points out mistakes to show how nothing works the way it should.

Despite his negative outlook on the current situation, he is resistant to change, which he believes will make things even worse. Brainstorming sessions with him get mired in negativity. He drags others down and kills any enthusiasm the group may have.

According to the sour apple, the system and management are the cause of all his woes. He is quick to say “I told you so” whenever there is a problem. His attitude undermines trust in the management team by sowing doubts about how the practice is run. He will never be a productive team player.

A sour apple on your staff needs to be reminded that “if you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all.” If his performance is as sour as his outlook, take steps to remove him.

The apple polisher
The apple polisher lacks motivation to do any real work. His personal performance is marginal, but he readily takes credit for the work of others. Supervisors tend to like him initially, until they begin to see through his façade. Other members of the group will eventually resent his lack of contribution to the team, especially if they think he is successfully fooling management or the doctors.

The apple polisher may be technically proficient and can even show moments of great potential. However, his lack of personal drive undermines his success.

This individual needs clear performance expectations and must be held accountable for his performance on a consistent basis. If he slides back into old habits, the only option left may be termination.

The gala apple
The gala apple is a special variety that requires a lot of direction from management. She is highly enthusiastic and fun to be around. She is usually very supportive of the practice, its physicians, and management. Everyone likes her. But her energies are often misdirected, and she easily becomes caught up in projects that are of peripheral importance.

The gala apple spends a lot of time doing things other than her assigned work. Because she is fun, others will often join her, and practice-related work performance can falter.

Her supervisor must constantly refocus the gala apple and others in her work group on the goals of the practice. Her enthusiasm is catching and, if channeled correctly, can be a great asset to the practice. This is an apple worth saving.

The rotten apple
The rotten apple will push the limits of all policies and procedures. He is often good at his job and believes that is sufficient to shield him from being held accountable. He will transgress as far as he is allowed. He is generally brash, domineering, and defensive, although a passive-aggressive variety is also seen.

Unlike the crab apple, the rotten apple is very self-centered. He will readily sacrifice coworkers if necessary. The rotten apple will sometimes flaunt his misbehavior as if daring management to confront him. When he is confronted, he will act shocked and dismayed.

Supervisors must be very careful to respond to the rotten apple in an unemotional, planned way. Keep the focus on him, his actions, and the impact on the team when discussing performance—and do not hesitate to document violations of policy that may lead to termination.

Apple pickers
The physicians and practice manager must work together to identify bad apples. Physicians must be involved in establishing practice culture, ethics, and policy; in most cases, supervision and discipline of employees must fall under the responsibility and authority of the practice management team.

In a patient care setting, physicians are trained and suited to lead the team. But even small group practices may have one or more administrative supervisors. Physicians must support supervisors by both word and action, or bad apples will try to use this dichotomy to divide and conquer.

For more information on managing staff, visit the AAOS online Practice Management Center.

Dale A. Reigle is chief executive officer of Rocky Mountain Orthopaedic Associates, PC, in Grand Junction, Colo. He can be reached at dreigle@rmodocs.com