Addition by Subtraction

bad apple

One of the things I learned when I lived in the US was the phase ‘Addition by Subtraction’.

This is the theory that, in teams often there is someone who is such a negative influence, that the team would actually be better off without them.

Even with one player less they would be a better team. Hence addition by subtraction, you take one player out and overall the team is better.

Interestingly this can often be one of the star players, someone who has become a prima donna, and now feels that they need special attention or star treatment, and this starts to interfere with the chemistry of the team.

Or it might just be a team member who disagrees with the direction in which the team is going, and they decide to try and change direction, or refuses to contribute and looks to get other members to join their resistance.

When we find ourselves in these kinds of situations we need to act quickly, as the other saying goes ‘one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel’, and this can be a major problem, especially if that apple has a lot of influence.

The sooner we do this, the sooner we can move to addition state, and get the team moving in the right direction.

No matter how quickly we move on this, there will be many in the team who are wondering why it took us so long to act.

I read an article about a Rugby World Cup winning coach who took his team to train with the Royal Marines to increase their fitness. After the 3-day session he asked the Marine instructors what they thought.

The instructor said, “are you asking me about their fitness or are you asking me what I really think about the squad”.  The coach said “what’s the difference”.

The instructor said “well their fitness is outstanding but you have two players who, if i were you I would drop immediately”, and he went on to mention their names.

The coach said “but they are two of my best players”.

The marine instructor said “but they lack the winning attitude, when the going gets tough they are the first to start complaining, and given their seniority the rest of the squad listens to them, and then their heads start to drop”.

“You need to replace them with people who have the winning attitude, who have a positive impact on the squad, if you do that you will improve the entire squad performance by 10-20%.  Sure these players are great, and against the lesser teams they will be outstanding, but to win the World Cup, you will have to win the tough games”.

After hearing this the coach thought about it, and he agreed. He even said that there had always been something, a nagging doubt at the back of his mind about the two players but he could never put his finger on it. But this clarified it for him, and he decided to drop the two players.

As you can expect their was a bit of a media outcry as two star players were dropped, but after their departure the team went on to win 22 of 23 games and the World Cup.

By removing 2 leading players, they had improved the overall team and their winning attitude.

As leaders it’s our job to spot these bad apples and replace them, it’s one of the toughest parts of the job.

I always remember the advice from Tom Collins in ‘Good to Great’, when you have doubts  ask yourself 2 questions.

  1. If they resigned would you be disappointed
  2. Given all that you know about them, if they were to reapply for their current roles would you re-employ them

If the answers to these two questions are no, then you have a problem that you need to deal with.

These are some of the tough decisions, we as leaders, have to make, but always think that you may be creating addition through subtraction.

Have you ever had someone that you removed and the overall team improved, if so I would love to hear about it.

Gordon Tredgold

Leadership Principles