The Case of The Bad Apple: Dealing With a Bad Teammate
By Anna Svedberg – an intern with Hult Labs. Currently pursuing a Masters in International Business at Hult International Business School.
It’s Monday morning, 7:15am, and the alarm goes off at John Smith’s* apartment. A graduate student in International Business, John is back from a few days of vacation; he’s excited and energized to start a new Module and meet his new teammates. What he didn’t know was that this would become the most challenging team experience – ever.
First of all, let’s be real: it’s impossible to get along with everyone. We all have different beliefs of what constitutes a good performance and we all have different goals (perhaps one teammate is satisfied with a passing grade, while other members are striving for no less than an “A”). With that said, working in teams might be the most challenging aspect of attending business school. However, some teams end up nearly perfect; everyone contributes, is respectful, on time, open for feedback...and the list goes on.
Before we go further into John’s tale of a team gone bad, I want to touch on the last topic I wrote about, Emotional Intelligence (EQ), which also plays a big role in effective teamwork. In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman states that “The single most important element in group intelligence, it turns out, is not the average IQ in the academic sense, but rather in terms of emotional intelligence. The key to a high group IQ is social harmony. It is this ability to harmonize that, all other things being equal, will make one group especially talented, productive, and successful, and another – with members whose talent and skill are equal in other regards – do poorly.” Certainly, maintaining social harmony within your team is easier said than done. As we all know, some teams end up being a disaster; and it’s typically one "bad apple", or problematic teammate, that poisons the entire team.
For John Smith, this was the case. Having a problematic teammate caused stress among all members, requiring them to pitch in more than their share in order to salvage a team project – and their grade in the class. A student myself, I was surprised to hear about the troubling teammate's behavior; no doubt it's a huge challenge to deal with, when we don't always have all the proper training and tools on how to handle a problematic teammate. I asked John if any action had been taken and what he would have done differently if he could do it all over again. He expressed the following: “The school did take some actions in the form of questioning the team and talking about the issues, but it was only "kumbaya" and nothing serious. “What would I have done differently? That’s a very difficult question, for which I would need to go into very small details. Of course some of my actions would have been different: for example, not giving that student anything important to do, etc…but I mean that cannot be the solution... teamwork means working in a team. But unfortunately, it currently means that the few good ones do the work for everyone else."
So how can teams create or preserve the social harmony that Goleman encourages in order to establish effective teamwork? According to the Fortune Group, there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, don’t confront someone in anger. Even if the situation is completely unacceptable, confronting someone in anger will most likely just have that person feeling attacked and the situation will just spin off into an emotional disaster. So before you decide to face one of your teammates regarding their behavior, get your emotions in check. Nevertheless, confrontation should be done as soon as the issue appears. If not, you might lose control over the situation.
Another tip: confrontation should be done in private. This does not mean that you should take the teammate into a private room with the door closed, but rather confront the person in a one-on-one situation, when the other teammates are not around. It could be done in a very casual setting, such as while getting coffee or walking down the hallway. Then, be specific: use factual information and evidence to back up your case, focusing on specific behavior. Be careful not to bring in impressions or gossip into the conversation; getting into too much detail might only make the situation more complex with unnecessary accusations. You should support your allegations with data whenever possible. Tell your teammate what he or she has done, how you feel about those actions and why you feel that way (but remember, stay calm). Finally, be clear; don’t include praise in the conversation just because you feel bad about bringing up your assertions. Just be honest and keep it straight.
As I already mentioned, creating social harmony is obviously easier said than done. But what’s important to keep in mind is that even though bad behavior is unacceptable, as demonstrated above, attacking the bad apple will not improve the situation, but will most likely disrupt the social harmony of the entire team - and when you lose it, it can be hard to get back. And since you can’t actually “fire” people from your team, you have no other choice than to resolve the situation as best as you can. But wait - what if you actually could fire people from your team? After all, isn’t that how it works in the real world? In my opinion, that might be a good solution. Not only does it enable the team to preserve its social harmony, but it’s also a way to ensure that no team member is a free-rider and gets a good grade just because the rest of the team works their butts off.
So what would a fired team member end up doing instead? Well, the professor could either assign a completely different, individual, assignment - or have the student complete the same type of project as the team, but of course, on an individual basis. Sound harsh? Maybe. But since we are in control of our own behavior and choices that we make, the possibility to get fired can prevent bad behavior altogether. Being aware of the fact that you can get fired from your team might actually enhance people’s work ethic and motivation!
There’s no doubt John Smith will remember this experience for life. Yet, he certainly learned a lot from it. Not only did he get the chance to practice on dealing with an extremely challenging situation (a great leadership skill), but he also knows how he can moderate the occurrence in a similar situation. For instance, he may initiate a team meeting before the team starts doing any actual work in order to encourage and set standards for commitment. At least he may notice early on if someone is not demonstrating buy-in and can then take appropriate action.
The ability to fire members from your team is just one solution. Perhaps you don’t agree that’s a manageable one, or maybe you just have other ideas in mind. Either way, we’d love to hear what your solutions are, so please feel free to leave comments.
*Names have been changed.