I saw it as a parent, as a volunteer in my child’s classroom, as an employee, as a team member, and as a manager. It’s quite a phenomenon — the spread of negative repercussions when you’re dealing with a bad apple.
In fact, we can quickly pick out the bad apple on the neighborhood street or in the otherwise congenial condo association. And once we do, we’re left to struggle with how to manage it — that is, how to manage him or her — as we fully come to grips with the truth of the saying: One bad apple can spoil the barrel.
Haven’t we all known someone whose poor attitude or divisive actions sours the environment for everyone?
The troublesome person may be a child or an adult, and we ourselves may unwittingly play that role at times.
One Bad Apple Will Spoil the Barrel
Do not assume the bad apple is “rotten to the core.” Life is rarely so simplistic; some of us are simply not at our best in certain situations. The bad apple could be partially sweet, yet we may need to separate it from those it will otherwise contaminate.
Do not confuse the bad apple with the squeaky wheel. In my experience, it’s easier to discern the motivations of the squeaky wheel, who often makes noise out of frustration and in need of metaphorical oiling. We are therefore more able to anticipate and effectively manage the one whose motivations are clear and, well… provide the oil to remove the squeak.
The bad apple isn’t always obvious at first. Doesn’t it look shiny and delicious from the outside, like the rest? It may not be until we take a bite that we know otherwise, or when it begins to produce an aroma that is anything but agreeable. We need to limit the spread of its harmful bacteria, and we hope, contain the damage to what remains in the barrel.
The Uncooperative Kid
What parent hasn’t noted the child who ruins the game or party or play date for the others? Perhaps he’s a bully, but more likely — he’s tired, he’s bothered by something he can’t articulate, or he’s learned to insist on having his way.
Any child can be the bad apple at some point. He may be acting out during difficult emotional times as a cry for attention and help.
Those who are teachers or have volunteered with kids of all ages can recognize the one who will spread her negativity (or bad habits) through a group activity, tainting what would have been a wonderful experience. More than uncooperative, she may wear the guise of the bully, the cut-up who goes too far, the naysayer, the complainer, or any number of other variations.
What if you’re the parent of the bad apple – or suspect you may be? Do you deny it? Do you confront it? Do you listen when a teacher or other adult brings it to your attention?
Bad Mood or Managed Manipulation?
What about the passive-aggressive spouse, or one who is moody, manipulative, or narcissistic? Can he or she become the bad apple that spoils the marriage?
We’ve all had our run-ins with those who rub us the wrong way or try to control our responses, our opinions, and our behaviors. They may bring their unhelpful attitude or approach to a day, a project, a social gathering, or a neighborhood cul-de-sac. What do we do when that individual is the person we live with – and perhaps this aspect of personality was hidden for some time?
What if we looked the other way, and we can’t do it any longer?
How do we effectively battle the negative and undermining attitudes of a spouse or partner when limiting exposure isn’t a viable solution?
Can people change? I certainly don’t believe we can change others. But does that mean our only options are to live with toxicity or cut and run?
Are there ways to contain the contamination of a bad apple or to save the parts that remain good?
Have you lived with this trying set of circumstances? Have you discovered your own role in it, and worked to change? Have you solved it through something other than breakup or divorce?
The Challenging Workplace
Occasionally the bad apple is a colleague, a subordinate, or a manager. You may be able to reason with a colleague, or at least observe the cause of problematic behaviors which will inevitably spread.
The bad apple risks spoiling everything around it, but if you catch it early, can that make a difference?
What if you can identify the issues and address them? Can you improve the situation, or possibly limit its potentially disastrous consequences?
If the bad apple is someone who works for you, then what? Do you let him go and deal with the clean-up? If it’s a manager, are you resigned to fending for yourself as best you can, knowing you need to live with mood swings, changing priorities, gamesmanship, or even unwitting inconsistency with no malice at its core? Is the only other option to accept that your tenure may be short-lived?
Apple Pie or Apple Sauce
I like to think we can catch the bad apple before it’s entirely rotten and spoils the barrel. I like to think that attitude change is possible, and if not, behavioral change can make a situation more survivable for all involved.
Then I remind myself — again — that no one changes unless they choose to change.
Still, I prefer extending the metaphor to scooping up that apple, tending to others it may have affected, and trying to “repurpose” it in some way — for apple pie or apple sauce.
If the child, the teenager, or the adult is unaware of being the bad apple, isn’t there hope that a third party might offer intervention and assistance? That something positive can be salvaged or created? Or am I being too much of the “good egg” in hoping for a resolution to dealing with the bad apple?
- What do you do when you encounter a bad apple?
- What if you discover he or she is your business partner, your client, your employee or your boss?
- Worse – what if the bad apple is your spouse, your child, or your aging parent?
- What strategies have you found to avoid tossing away the relationship?
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