One Bad Apple Does Spoil the Whole Bunch

We all work in teams, groups and collectives. And we all have had the experience of a group member not carrying their weight, being extremely negative or being mean.  Will Felps, Terence Mitchell and Eliza Byington have categorized these “bad apples” as deadbeats (those who are free riders), downers (those who are constantly pessimistic) and jerks (those who violate the norms of respect and civil behaviour).

According to these researchers, toxic team members can have a disproportionate impact on the performance of a group. Other researchers suggest group performance decreases of as much as 30 – 40%.  Which raises the question why does a single person have such a substantial negative impact on a group of people?

Essentially, when a group identifies a bad apple, they will try to change the behaviour of the individual in question, or they will try to leave the group.  If neither of these tactics are possible or successful, members of the group will respond to the situation with aggression, spillover and sensemaking.  These behaviours will result in reduced effectiveness of group processes and negatively impact group outputs.

Team members will respond to a chronic “bad apple” with negative emotions and damaged trust.  In order to manage those feelings, they engage in aggressive defensive behaviours, including explosions, covert revenge, mood maintenance, denial, slacking off and withdrawal.

Additionally bad apples poison the culture. One bad apple who gets away with these negative behaviours demonstrates to others that they are acceptable in the workplace. Other team members start behaving in a similar manner. In other words, both behaviours and moods are contagious.

Finally, group members may undertake a process of sensemaking. In order to make sense of a negative and difficult situation, from which there is no way out, members talk to others outside the group to share their frustrations. Over time, with no solution to the problem, the members “lose faith in the group of which they are a part.”  The result is that people drop their identification with the group, physically and psychologically dis-engaging.  This outcome is spread throughout the organization as a result of social conversation.

Every organization has bad apples.  They are often tolerated because they “deliver great numbers”.  However, research suggests that bad apples actually suppress the performance of others. So much so that the so-called “effectiveness” of the bad apple might be called into question. If the negative employee is reducing the performance of five or six people in their immediate group by 30 – 40%, perhaps they are less productive at a group level than we would like to think.

Take a look at your team.  Are there any bad apples? Deadbeats, downers or jerks? Are they doing more damage than you realize? One bad apple CAN spoil the whole bunch, at least in groups.

Source: Felps, Will, Mitchell, Terence and Byington, Eliza. “How, When and Why Bad Apples Spoil the Barrel: Negative Group Members and Dsyfunctional Groups”. Research in Organizational Behaviour. 2006. Vol. 27, 175–222.

1 reply »

  1. Outstanding Colleen! I will be sharing this with my team today as we review our team member’s performances during 2011. One of our sites has a couple of ‘bad apples’ and we are working as a leadership team to manage these issues – very topical! I thoroughly enjoy your topics and writing style – thanks for all of your posts and willingness to share. Steve

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