“One Bad Apple” by Dkalderon
Black Walnut trees produce a toxic substance called juglone that harms surrounding plants’ growth, development and germination. This toxin can even kill certain plant species. The degree of damage to surrounding life depends on how resistant other species are to the juglone toxin, as well as their proximity to the black walnut roots.
When I hear of or experience a toxic employee, I call it the Black Walnut Effect. Like the Black Walnut tree, a toxic employee can spread negativity and toxicity in the workplace, negatively impacting the morale and productivity of their colleagues. Their toxic behaviour makes it difficult for others to thrive and grow, just as the presence of a black walnut tree can make it difficult for other plants to flourish. In addition, like a black walnut tree, a toxic employee can have a far-reaching impact. Their behaviour can affect not just their immediate colleagues but also those in other departments and across the broader organisation. This is similar to how a black walnut tree’s toxins can affect not just neighbouring plants but also the soil and the ecosystem as a whole.
A 2006 study looked at the impact of a toxic colleague on work teams. The research team examined when a “Bad Apple Spoils the Barrel”. They identified three kinds of bad‐apple employees: “withholders” (people who slack or don’t pull their weight), “downers” (people who express frequent pessimism, irritation, and other negative emotions), and “jerks” (people who violate norms of respect). They found that if a team had just one person for any of these three categories, performance dropped by 40%. And having star performers in the group wasn’t enough to overcome the negative influence of just one bad apple.
In our latest episode of The Innovation Show with Karen Dillon, we explore her latest book, co-authored with Rob Cross, called “The Microstress Effect”. In our conversation, Karen tells us how negativity is infectious. Emotions spread via mirror neurons, tiny brain parts that allow us to empathise with others and understand their feelings. That’s why when we see someone smile, we might smile too. However, we can also pick up negativity, stress, and the toxic vibes of that “Black Walnut” colleague. Karen tells us, “Negative interactions always have a disproportionately large impact on our well-being.”
There is a saying in management consulting that the right time to fire someone is the first time it crosses your mind. It refers to dealing with toxic employees and how most managers are reluctant to terminate personnel, hanging on to them too long. This is also known as “hire slow” (for culture and capabilities) but “fire fast” once you find out that the hire is not working out and especially if they are a Black Walnut. However, many managers avoid this uncomfortable task, but doing so evokes a corporate “Broken Window Syndrome”.
I read about “Broken Window Syndrome,” also known as the “Broken Windows Theory,” in a 1982 article in The Atlantic by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. As a criminological concept, it suggests that visible signs of disorder and neglect in an environment, such as broken windows or graffiti, encourage more severe crimes. The theory proposes that when an area is left in a state of disorder and disrepair, it sends a message that no one cares about it or is in control, which – in turn – can attract more criminal activity. The authors conclude, “Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police—and the rest of us—ought to recognize the importance of maintaining intact communities without broken windows.”
In a time of rapid change, where many of us are at the limits of our cognitive capacity, we must weed out the Black Walnuts in our lives. Yes, we can offer them training or some coaching. However, if it is evident that their behaviour does not change, then please deal with it quickly. If you neglect to remove the black walnut, you will see a gradual departure of the surrounding species to healthier pastures, with the younger saplings leading the way. In conclusion, just as removing a black walnut tree from an environment restores balance and promotes healthy growth, it’s essential to address toxic employees in the workplace to maintain a positive and productive work environment. It is essential to repair the broken windows.
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