• Leadership
  • McKinsey & Co.

Bad to Great: The Path to Scaling Up Excellence

Before senior executives try to spread best practices, they should use seven techniques to clear out the negative behavior that stands in the way.

Leaders who aim to boost organizational performance often start with efforts to kindle good behavior, however they define it. Yet case studies and rigorous academic research show that if you want to create and spread excellence, eliminating the negative is the first order of business. Destructive behavior — selfishness, nastiness, fear, laziness, dishonesty — packs a far bigger wallop than constructive behavior.

Organizational researcher Andrew Miner and colleagues, for example, measured the moods of 41 employees at random intervals throughout the workday. The researchers discovered that negative interactions with bosses and coworkers had five times more impact on employees’ moods than positive interactions. This “bad is stronger than good” effect holds in nearly every other setting studied, from romantic relationships to group effectiveness.

Efforts to scale up excellence stall when bad behavior crowds out good. Scaling is one of the toughest challenges that senior leaders face. Executives can always point to places where a company is doing a great job. What drives them, keeps them up at night, and devours their workdays is the difficulty of spreading excellence to more people and more places. This “problem of more” is tough to crack. Scaling requires pressing each person, team, group, division, or organization to change what they believe, feel, or do.

Eliminating destructive behavior and beliefs clears the way for excellence to spread — particularly when these impediments clash with the mind-set that propels your organization’s performance. When it comes to mind-sets, however, one size does not fit all; what is good for another company may be bad for yours. At Facebook, everyone from senior executives to new engineers lives the mantra “move fast and break things.” When we asked an executive at one company if its people lived this mind-set, he answered that “move fast and break things” was wrong for many of its businesses, especially the unit that builds software for nuclear submarines!

Negative actions and beliefs also come in different flavors. Whatever their exact characteristics, bad behavior undermines scaling efforts by introducing confusion, destructive conflict, distrust, and dead ends. To spread and sustain something good, you’ve first got to take out the bad. Seven methods can help leaders who are bent on “breaking bad.”

1. Nip it in the bud

In 1982, criminologist George L. Kelling and political scientist James Q. Wilson described what they called the “broken windows” theory: they observed that in neighborhoods where one broken window was left unrepaired, the remaining windows would soon be broken, too. Allowing even a bit of bad to persist suggests that no one is watching, no one cares, and no one will stop others from doing far worse things. The theory soon had a big impact on public policy, particularly in New York, where crime plummeted after efforts were made to stamp out minor offenses such as graffiti and panhandling.

Much research supports this theory. Charles O’Reilly and Barton Weitz, for example, studied 141 supervisors in a large retail chain. They focused on how supervisors handled salespeople who were tardy, unhelpful, uncooperative, discourteous to customers or unproductive. O’Reilly and Weitz found that supervisors of the most productive units confronted problems more directly and quickly, issued more warnings, used formal punishments more often and promptly fired employees when warnings failed.

One thought on “Bad to Great: The Path to Scaling Up Excellence

  1. Useful information. But it misses the most important point. Leading by example.

    Sunil Pande
    VersAccounts Limited
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