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How workplace 'bad apples' spoil barrels of good employees

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Dealing with negative workers

Look around any organization and chances are you'll be able to find at least one person whose negative behavior affects the rest of the group to varying degrees. So much so, say two University of Washington researchers, that these "bad apples" are like a virus to their teams, and can upset or spoil the whole apple cart.

Negative co-workers hurt work performance

The researchers' paper, appearing in the current issue of Research in Organizational Behavior, examines how, when and why the behaviors of one negative member can have powerful and often detrimental influence on teams and groups.

William Felps, a doctoral student at the UW Business School and the study's lead author, was inspired to investigate how workplace conflict and citizenship can be affected by one's co-workers after his wife experienced the "bad apple" phenomenon.

Felps' wife was unhappy at work and characterized the environment as cold and unfriendly. Then, she said, a funny thing happened. One of her co-workers who was particularly caustic and was always making fun of other people at the office came down with an illness that caused him to be away for several days.

"And when he was gone, my wife said that the atmosphere of the office changed dramatically," Felps said. "People started helping each other, playing classical 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."

Bad apples destroy teamwork at the office

Following his wife's experience, Felps, together with Terence Mitchell, a professor of management and organization in the Business School and UW psychology professor, analyzed about 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.

Felps and Mitchell define negative people as those who don't do their fair share of the work, who are chronically unhappy and emotionally unstable, or who bully or attack others. They found that a single "toxic" or negative team member can be the catalyst for downward spirals in organizations. In a follow-up study, the researchers found the vast majority of the people they surveyed could identify at least one "bad apple" that had produced organizational dysfunction.

They reviewed a variety of working environments in which tasks and assignments were performed by small groups of employees whose jobs were interdependent or required a great deal of interaction with one another. They specifically studied smaller groups because those typically require more interaction among members and generally are less tolerant of negative behaviors. Members of smaller groups also are more likely to respond to or speak out about a group member's negative behavior. 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 have conflict, have poor communication within the team and refuse to cooperate with one another. Consequently, the teams performed poorly.

"Most organizations 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."

Reactions to toxic co-workers

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 behavior 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. 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 behavior outweighs positive behavior 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 behaviors, 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 behavior is not put into the spotlight as much as negative behavior is."

The authors caution there's a 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. And, as Felps and Mitchell argue, unlike "bad apples," "positive deviants" actually help spark organizational innovation.

How can companies avoid experiencing the "bad apple" phenomenon?

"Managers at companies, particularly those in which employees often work in teams, should take special care when hiring new employees," Felps said. "This would include checking references and administering personality tests so that those who are really low on agreeableness, emotional stability or conscientiousness are screened out."

But, he added, if one slips through the selection screening, companies should place them in a position in which they work alone as much as possible. Or, alternatively, there may be no choice but to let these individuals go.

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