Few can argue that Antonio Brown is immensely talented.

Brown’s best five-year run will hold up against any wide receiver in NFL history. From 2014 to 2018, Antonio Brown averaged 115 receptions, 1,529 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Former San Francisco 49er and Hall of Famer, Jerry Rice, delivered his best five-year stretch from 1989 to 1993. During this stretch, he averaged 89 receptions, 1,379 yards and 14 touchdowns.

In spite of his production, the Pittsburgh Steelers were happy to see him go. For what amounted to a third-round pick, the Steelers traded the franchise’s greatest receiver in history to the Oakland Raiders.

Why would they let a talent like that walk out the door? Brown’s production on the field no longer exceeded the damage he did off the field.

In a season where Brown had 15 touchdowns through 15 games, his coach benched him in the last game of the season. While the Steelers battled in a must-win game to reach the playoffs, Brown watched in his fur coat.

Head coach, Mike Tomlin, was forced to take a stand after Brown missed multiple practices and walkthroughs during that week. Tomlin is the same head coach who was embarrassed publicly when his mercurial wide receiver posted a locker room speech live on social media the previous year.

Tomlin was seen in an emotional moment with his team, saying a few choice things about the Steelers next opponent. This selfish act broke every unspoken rule of team trust and several published policies by the NFL and team.

Brown sparred with teammates, most notably quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and budding young star, JuJu Smith-Schuster. Once he left the Steelers, current and former teammates admitted how they felt about him.

After enduring several veiled shots from Brown, Smith-Schuster responded with "Crazy how big that ego got to be to take shots at people who show you love." He followed that with a quote from Mark Twain, "Never argue with a fool. Onlookers may not be able to tell the difference."

Former Steeler, Ryan Clark, opened up about what Brown was like as a teammate.

Not surprised that there's beef, not surprised that there's issues. Antonio has been a guy who's been a "me" guy, he's been a guy that's self-centered in a way that he's concerned with the individual stats, how I'm being treated, I'm being perceived or portrayed.

When you see him on the sideline in a mink coat before the game -- not Pittsburgh Steelers gear, not sideline gear, totally separate from the team that lets you know that this is an issue that's not only about today or yesterday but it's been something that's happening throughout the year and his career."

How Do Bad Apples Effect Teams?

Will Felps and Terence Mitchell conducted the most extensive workplace study of its kind on the impact of deviant behavior on teams. Felps grew interested in the topic when his wife shared her experience of a team that blossomed only after a negative teammate left for an extended period with an illness.

People started helping each other, playing music on their radios, and going out for drinks after work. But when he returned to the office, things returned to the unpleasant way they were. She hadn’t noticed this employee as being a very important person in the office before he came down with this illness but, upon observing the social atmosphere when he was gone, she came to believe that he had a profound and negative impact. He truly was the “bad apple” that spoiled the barrel.”

In researching dozens of workplace team studies, Felps and Mitchell defined "bad apples" as individuals who chronically display behaviors which asymmetrically impairs group functioning. What did they find? With teams, "bad apples" do objectively spoil the bunch. Their data showed a 40% disadvantage for teams with at least one "bad apple."

Felps and Mitchell found that "bad apples" fell into three distinct categories, with some extreme outliers displaying behaviors consistent with all three types. Brown's former teammates might have trouble deciding which archetype he fits.

The Deadbeat (Withholder of Effort)

This individual withholds effort from the team, intentionally dodging responsibilities and free-riding off the effort of others. Though this individual is not overtly negative to teammates, they can have just as deleterious impact on performance.

Shirking, freeloading, social loafing, idling - we learn to loathe withholders of effort at a young age. Think of a team project you worked on in school with one freeloading teammate. How did it make you feel?

Chances are, you felt insulted. With the entire group getting one grade, one person would be over-rewarded for your hard work while the rest would be under-rewarded.

Jeffrey Jackson and Stephen Harkins conducted a workplace study on social loafing. They found that all members on a team lowered their effort when working with at least one loafer. Feeling under-rewarded for effort produces a stronger psychological effect than being over-rewarded.

Perceptions of inequity result in a desire to restore equity by reducing individual contributions. If you loaf, I loaf. Teammates would rather tank their results than see a loafer get unjustly rewarded for the team's effort.

Antonio Brown is known as one of the hardest workers in the league. He practices like a demon and lives in the weight room. But, when it came to team events and meetings, he behaved like he was beyond reproach.

Brown didn't just miss meetings leading up to that fateful Week 17 game. He also missed meetings the previous week before a game against the New Orleans Saints - a game the Steelers lost.

The Downer (Affectively Negative)

The downer exhibits an awkward interpersonal style and frequently expresses pessimism, anxiety, insecurity and irritation. These individuals can find a storm cloud on the horizon of every sunny day.

The psychological impact on a team is emotional contagion, where teammates are emotionally impacted by the downer's behavior. If the downer sees enough storm clouds, we all start to see storm clouds.

Another study by Dimberg and Ohman found that happy subjects who observed angry facial expressions, quickly became angry themselves. Affectively negative individuals have an asymmetric impact on groups than an affectively positive person.

On teams, negative people outweigh the positive team members.

With Antonio Brown gone, his former Pittsburgh teammates gushed about how the new team chemistry.

Running back, James Conner, remarked, "I think we became closer maybe because of everything...Great vibes within our organization. We’re excited about the future, man.” Asked about the departure of Brown, he added, "I think we are closer because of it."

The Steelers new top receiver was even more direct. “The chemistry is on point. Everyone is on the same page. Everyone is communicating. There’s no — how do you say? — drama in our locker room,” Smith-Schuster told the Associated Press.

Franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger went out of his way to show leadership, hosting several team events at his house in the offseason. This wasn't happening when Brown was on the team.

The Jerk (Interpersonal Deviant)

Felps and Mitchell documented a long list of behaviors common with the interpersonal deviant.

  • Make fun of peers
  • Hurling hurtful comments
  • Inappropriate and insensitive remarks
  • Actively rude
  • Bullying behavior
  • Refuse to help teammates unless it is self-serving

Jerks undermine trust within groups, leading to increased monitoring, a significant distraction from business activity. Trust is asymmetric, easier to damage than it is to build.

When a team has at least one jerk, the group cannot embrace failure and help each other. Teammates clam up and share less.

Groups look to their leader to punish deviant behavior. The Steelers approached coach Tomlin about Brown playing by his own rules and received less than an appealing answer.

One ex-Steeler shared this story, "[Tomlin] essentially told the group: 'We'll tolerate it now because of what he brings on the field, but the minute production stops, you don't overlook it.'"

In other words, Brown could make his teammates feel however, he liked so long as he was catching touchdowns. What message did that send to the rest of the team? When teams feel like their leader won't address deviant behavior, they feel powerless in the face of the threat, which likely intensifies their psychological reactions.

James Washington was a rookie wide receiver in Antonio Brown's last season with the Steelers. He represented the future of the franchise and was just the type of player who could have benefited from an influential mentor.

Washington is now thriving after a tough rookie season in which he learned by watching Brown but not by talking with him.

I didn’t really speak to him much. He made a lot of plays. Us as a receiving corps, I mean, I think we’ll be just fine. We have a lot of playmakers, we have guys with different skill sets so I’m not really worried about that part. It’s a lot smoother.”

Presented with an opportunity to mentor a rookie teammate, Brown ignored Washington and focused on himself. After all, helping the promising rookie might take some of the shine off of Brown's production.

Leaving a "bad apple" to their own devices is brutal on a workforce. Pearson conducted a study and found that one in four employees who worked with a lousy teammate acknowledged withdrawing from work. Half of those studied contemplated quitting, and 12% left their company due to one teammate.

Winning Cultures Start With Tough Decisions

Since the NFL merged two divisions, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been the gold standard for winning culture. Since 1970, no team has a higher winning percentage (.635), more wins (480) or championships (6.)

The Steelers have played in eight Super Bowls, earning rings in 1975, 1976, 1979, 1980, 2006 and 2009. Since 1970, the Steelers reached the playoffs 30 times, won their division 22 times and reached the AFC Championship Game 16 times.

For perspective, my beloved Detroit Lions have one playoff win during that stretch.

There is a special place in heaven for Lions fans.

I use 1970 as a starting point because the Steelers were terrible from their founding in 1933 until 1969. In the first 36 years as a franchise, Pittsburgh won zero division titles, zero playoff games and only finished 2nd twice.

The Steelers were the Lions before the Lions were the Lions.

Then Chuck Noll came to town. The Steelers job was his first head coaching position in the NFL. Noll spent the previous decade working under two Hall of Fame coaches, Sid Gillman and Don Shula.

Noll inherited a losing culture and a team that went 2-11 the previous year. The Steelers had one Pro Bowl player, wide receiver Richard Jefferson.

In the previous season, Jefferson led the league in receiving yards. In Noll's first year as coach in 1969, Jefferson accounted for 44% of the team's receiving yards, a league record at the time.

He tested Noll's authority immediately, publicly criticizing the new staff. In retirement, Jefferson admitted that he had no interest in following Noll. "I messed over the curfew rules a lot and, in training camp, I'd park my car in the coaches' spaces," admitted Jefferson in an interview forty years later.

Noll instituted a rule where players needed to wear their helmet whenever they were on the field. Jefferson made it a point to show up on the field bare-headed. A receiver with a helmet issue - sound familiar?

Noll understood that a losing culture wouldn't change with Jefferson in the locker room. After only one season, Noll traded the best receiver in football to the Baltimore Colts for a mid-round pick. Sound familiar?

"Anyone else got a problem with wearing your helmet on the field?"

That decision seems obvious today, but it was bold at the time. In a winning locker room led by Johnny Unitas and several other Hall of Fame personalities, Jefferson thrived. The Colts won the Super Bowl in Jefferson's first season, while he led the team in receptions and touchdowns.

Getting rid of a "bad apple" is only part of the equation. Noll went to work finding his kind of guys. He started with "Mean" Joe Greene, who was not a fan of losing. Slowly, the locker room changed. Within two years, the Steelers were regulars in the playoffs, setting a foundation that would last decades.

That culture started by taking a stand with one "bad apple."

What Is A Manager To Do?

Starting with ownership, the Steelers organization values culture and is willing to make short-term sacrifices to protect that culture.

Over time, this belief is reinforced with every difficult decision. Just as the team improved when Jefferson moved on, the Steelers believe they can thrive without Brown.

If an organization is run with a short-term mindset, managers will make short-term decisions. Would Mike Tomlin be as quick to part with Brown if he believed his job depended on winning the division this year?

The Steelers had 13 coaches from 1933 to 1968. Since Chuck Noll took the Steelers job in 1969, Pittsburgh has had only three head coaches. In 50 years, they have not fired a head coach and it wasn't always perfect. In that time, Pittsburgh missed the playoffs in twenty seasons.

If you are a front-line manager, ask yourself what type of culture you want to build and what is holding you back from replacing your "bad apple." The answer may be that you fear repercussions from a short-term decline in results.

If this is the case, schedule time with your manager and have an honest discussion.

  1. Ask your manager what type of team they want you to build. What kind of culture do they want you to cultivate?
  2. Explain the unintended consequences of ignoring your star's behavior. Explain how keeping someone with deviant behavior is directly opposed to building the culture your manager described.
  3. Be clear that short-term performance may dip, but breakthrough results won't materialize until you remove this person.

If you are an owner or executive, encourage your manager to put culture first. Create a safe environment and encourage your manager to make a brave decision. Let your manager know that you understand the tradeoff and plan to stand behind them.

Three Rules To Build A Winning Culture

Leaders build cultures through the behaviors they are willing to tolerate. You have a team to consider, and they are watching you closely.

There is no stronger statement you can make than cutting ties with a top performer whose behavior negatively impacts the rest of your team.

Did the Steelers make the right decision to trade Antonio Brown? In Brown's tenure, the Steelers won zero Super Bowl championships. For the winningest franchise in the NFL, the goal isn't to lead the league in receptions.

Deciding if the decision is correct is subjective. However, it is blatantly clear that this decision is consistent with the values of the Steelers organization.

When organizations make long-term excellence the bar, it is much easier for leaders to get past individual production.

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