How one bad apple can create a toxic team

Feb 14 2007 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Look around any organisation and chances are you'll find at least one person whose negative behaviour affects the rest of the group to varying degrees. Now new research has found that it only takes one such toxic individual to upset the whole apple cart.

So-called "bad apples" – people who don't do their fair share of the work, who are chronically unhappy and emotionally unstable, or who bully or attack others – act like a virus, destroying team dynamics and creating organisational dysfunction.

William Felps and Professor Terence Mitchell from the University of Washington's School of Business analysed some two dozen published studies that focused on how teams and groups of employees interact, and specifically how having bad teammates can destroy a good team.

The researchers' paper, published in the current issue of the journal Research in Organisational Behaviour, found the vast majority of the people they could identify at least one bad apple who had trailed havoc in their wake.

The two looked at how groups of roughly five to 15 employees in sectors such as manufacturing, fast food, and university settings were affected by the presence of one negative member.

For example, in one study of about 50 manufacturing teams, they found that teams that had a member who was disagreeable or irresponsible were much more likely to experience conflict, have poor communication within the team and see individuals refusing to cooperate with one another. Consequently, the teams performed poorly.

"Most organisations do not have very effective ways to handle the problem," said Mitchell. "This is especially true when the problem employee has longevity, experience or power.

"Companies need to move quickly to deal with such problems because the negativity of just one individual is pervasive and destructive and can spread quickly."

According to Felps, group members will react to a negative member in one of three ways: motivational intervention, rejection or defensiveness. In the first scenario, members will express their concerns and ask the individual to change his behaviour and, if unsuccessful, the negative member can be removed or rejected.

If either the motivation intervention or rejection is successful, the negative member never becomes a bad apple and the "barrel" of employees is spared. These two options, however, require that the teammates have some power: when underpowered, teammates become frustrated, distracted and defensive.

Common defensive mechanisms employees use to cope with a bad apple include denial, social withdrawal, anger, anxiety and fear. As a result, trust in the team deteriorates and as the group loses its positive culture, members physically and psychologically disengage themselves from the team.

Felps and Mitchell also found that negative behaviour outweighs positive behaviour – that is, a bad apple can spoil the barrel but one or two good workers can't unspoil it.

"People do not expect negative events and behaviours, so when we see them we pay attention to them, ruminate over them and generally attempt to marshal all our resources to cope with the negativity in some way," Mitchell said.

"Good behaviour is not put into the spotlight as much as negative behaviour is."

However Felps and Mitchell warn that there is a world of difference between bad apples and employees who think outside the box and challenge the status quo.

Since these "positive deviants" rock the boat, they may not always be appreciated., but unlike bad apples, they often help to spark organisational innovation.

So, how can companies avoid experiencing the bad apple phenomenon? According to Felps, recruiting the right people is essential, and he suggests using personality tests to screen out those who are disagreeable or emotionally unstable.

But, if a bad apple does slip through the net, companies should place them in a position in which they work alone as much as possible or acknowledge that they have little alternative but to let these individuals go.

Older Comments

This study corroborates one of the downsides of a weak-process culture: it perpetuates the careers of what I call 'But People.'

In my book, Wal-Smart: What it Really Takes to Profit in a Wal-Mart World (McGraw-Hill, 2007), I discuss the differences between strong-process organizations and weak-process organizations. The distinction does not lie in the processes themselves, but rather in the management culture which enforces process discipline and accountability.

We have all heard about 'But People': 'I know John treats people poorly, but he consistently beats plan.' Weak-process organizations are willing to retain maverick managers even when the attitude they model is cancerous to the long-term health of the organization. The wins 'But People' achieve in the short term hurt the organization in the long run.

Wal-Smart also gives an example of a Fortune 200 company that failed because one 'But Person' was retained in senior management ranks.

See for more details.

Bill Marquard Chicago, IL

So the real purpose of this article was to create a commiserative context to increase the sales of Mr. Marquard's book? If not, please forgive me Mr. Marquard.

Otherwise the article simply restates the obvious.

Bad Apple Seated

The bad apple article was a good and informative article about difficult, disruptive and negative behaviour employees; employees who invaribly create an atmosphere of hostility and animosity in the work place.

I worked for many years for a large corporation where management's hands were tied when it came to the bad apples. This environment existed only because of the employee unions for both professional and non-professional staff. Collective agreements made it impossible to deal constructively with bad apples unless the employee embellzed money from the company or stole company property; incompetence, absenteeism from work and a bad attitude was lock jaw tolerated.

More often than not, bad apple employees seemed to get the promotions and the transfers to the good jobs; a problem solving solution evolved.

The only thing that distracted me from the impact of this article's content was the numerous spelling errors. Better editing for spelling and grammar should be as important as the subject matter.

Mary Canada

The article though nice, it doesnt highlight how to really tackle the so called bad apples. Though it does give some insight on the recruitment part, but what about the team members who are already inside the organisation ?

Good Apple India

good article

maria virginia

Yeah a really good article, for many organizations tends to hide or ignore the fact that there is or are the so called bad-apples in the organization. This article will really make them to change the notion on this issue and make them to really look into the matter in other to safe guard their organizations interest. Very helpful article

Onu Malaysia