A recent post by Robert Sutton of Stanford University for Harvard Business Review has a provocative title, “Bad is Stronger Than Good: Evidence-Based Advice for Bosses.” The title and some of the introductory paragraphs might give you the impression that you should focus your time on what your people are doing wrong. In fact, the article contains two main takeaways:

1. In spite of making global statements, like “It’s more important to eliminate the negative,” he doesn’t mean eliminating the challenges/weaknesses that people present. He is talking about eliminating the bad apples, people who are toxic forces within the organization. Many leadership experts would agree, including Steve Tobak, who blogged on 7 Toxic Coworkers You Have to Avoid.

2.  The research quoted is related to negative experiences, people and information have a deeper impact than positive ones. Since the examples quoted are all based on romantic relationships, the applicability to work is unclear. However, it does seem logical that if bad interactions outnumber good ones, a work relationship would probably be doomed as well.

But what does this blog have to do with the average, hard-working Joe or Josephine at work? If they’re not the chronically negative and annoying types, probably not much.

What more commonly plagues many leaders is not what to do with the obviously bad apples, but how to maximize the potential of average apples with good potential and a few rough spots. While it may be distasteful and require some gumption, eliminating the bad guys is cleaner and easier than cultivating the garden-variety worker to achieve her best. That’s where the real work of leadership begins.

So how do you “polish the everyday apples” so that their innate qualities translate into excellent performance?

Set and enforce high standards. People will respond to the challenge if you establish high standards for integrity and performance. Make it plain which attitudes and behaviors are expected, and which are not to be tolerated. You’re all responsible for this pie, and every single apple has to contribute positively, even you.

Align people’s talents and enthusiasm with the job. People should be given an opportunity to do something at which they can excel. This may mean cobbling a couple of jobs together or customizing a role or project. That might seem like you’re bending too far to suit each person. In actuality, you are doing yourself and the organization a big favor. When your people are putting their abilities to best use, they bring their whole selves to work – their passion, drive and creativity. Major juice for your organizational pie!

Feed what’s working. Yes, you need to weed out any behaviors and attitudes that are detrimental to success. But most of your time should be spent pointing out what’s going well and how it supports the needs of the organization. You might also need to introduce (“seed”) new best practices. For practical tips to keep the right balance, check out our blog on feed, need, seed and weed.

Do your part of the job. It’s pretty simple. It’s about your people and how well you are able to remove barriers to their success. If that bad apple’s getting in the way, deal with it. If someone has a flaw that interferes with performance, support him to either correct it or mitigate its effects. If the flaw is yours, figure out what you need to do to manage your own imperfections.

In the words of the immortal George Jackson, as sung by the Osmond brothers, “One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl.” Or guy. Yes, the bad apples need to go. But bad isn’t stronger than good. We need to devote our time to what really works – on what’s right with the rest of the bunch, in order to make a practically perfect pie…or organization.

Have a question or want some input from Humanergy about this topic? Contact us and we’ll get right back to you!