HR Strange But True!
February 15, 2007

It seems that the Jackson Five* and the Osmonds may have had it wrong -- one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch, at least when it comes to teams of employees, a new study concludes. [*See the correction, below.]

University of Washington researchers found that workplace 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. Not surprisingly, those teams performed poorly.

"Most organizations do not have very effective ways to handle the problem," said Terence Mitchell, a professor of management and organization in the University of Washington Business School. "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."

The researchers defined 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" team member can be the catalyst for downward spirals in organizations.

They also found that negative behavior outweighs positive behavior. In other words, while one bad apple can spoil the barrel, one or two good workers can't "unspoil" it.

In a follow-up study, the researchers found that the vast majority of the people they surveyed could identify at least one bad apple that had produced organizational dysfunction.

"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."

Common defense mechanisms employees use to cope with a negative colleagues 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.

The researchers suggested that to avoid the bad apple phenomenon, organizations should take special care when hiring new employees, including checking references and administering personality tests so that applicants who are low on agreeableness, emotional stability, or conscientiousness are screened out.


BLR's pocket guide "Better Interviews/Better Hires" shows your managers how to use the hiring interview to evaluate candidates, sell your organization, and avoid hiring bad apples.

[*We subsequently learned that the Jackson Five did not sing "One Bad Apple." Read our follow-up piece.]

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