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" Ė people who don't do their fair share of the work, who are chronically unhappy and emotionally unstable, or who bully or attack others Ė 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 Ė 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.