Every team has one: the non-team player, the one who constantly complains or doesn't pull his weight or is simply a jerk of toxic proportions. Actually, many teams have a few of these people, but the damage even one can do to team performance is striking. Academic research on the impact of bad apples go decades back. A recent study by Will Felps, a professor at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, was cited on National Public Radio as finding that one bad apple can cause team performance to tank 30- to 40 percent. Maybe managers should do something about that one bad apple.
It's important to identify bad apples and keep an eye on employees who might be. To help understand these people, Felps sent me a paper he authored, published the journal Research in Organizational Behavior in 2006, that explains this path of destruction. According to the paper there are three varieties of bad apple: the "withholder of effort," or "slacker" in common parlance; the "affectively negative" type, always complaining or finding some flaw or pointlessness in the team's work; and finally, in layman's terms, the jerk, the "interpersonal deviant." And we're all familiar with this group.
The jerk, incidentally, might be overlooked as a truly bad apple simply because of its ubiquity. Yet consider these findings Felps cites from a colleague's research on how experiencing "incivility" causes employees to withdraw from their work. Twenty percent reduced their rate of work from having incivility directed at them; another 10 percent deliberately spent less time at work. And then there's this number: 12 percent actually quit. More people left the company than deliberately spent less time there.
These responses were just to "incivility"; imagine what a socially-deviant jerk can do. Jerk behavior, as defined by Felps for his paper, comes in seven forms: making fun of people, uttering ethnic or racial slurs, playing mean-spirited pranks, publicly embarrassing people, being rude, cursing at people, and saying hurtful things.
As alarming as all of this damage is to team performance, there's an even worse effect bad apples have on their teams. If "one bad apple ruins the barrel," another apple-related adage comes into play: bad apples, it turns out, beget other bad apples that "don't fall far from the tree." Negative team members actually cause other team members to be like them. The explanation boils down to managers' inattention to or failure to discipline bad apples. Because of this failure, team members deal with bad apples on their own. When their efforts prove futile, they "de-identify" or stop being the "good" employees they were and turn to the dark side.
Bad apples destroy the very things teams need to perform: motivation decreases through the team's growing ineffectiveness, distractions, and de-identifiers. Creativity and learning also suffer because bad apples harbor negative feelings like perceived inequity and fear for their job safety, which causes them to hoard information instead of sharing it and collaborating. These feelings and attitudes are contagious, leading other team members to share them.
I asked Felps if he had any thoughts on solutions managers can apply to the bad-apple phenomenon. "The most accessible treatment is Bob Sutton's ‘No a**hole rule,'" Felps wrote back. (To avoid jerk behavior myself, I'll call this the "no-jerk rule.") "Despite the obstreperous title, it is well-researched and insightful." It's also simple: bad apples have got to go. Robert Sutton, a management professor at Stanford, developed (and wrote the well-known eponymous book on) the no-jerk rule as a kind of zero-tolerance approach to workplace jerks. Companies like Barclays Capital have implemented it. Toxic employees, he told Management Consulting News, "need serious reform or should be shown the door."
It's really that simple. Even better: everyone's happy. After all, who's going to be upset that you tossed the bad seed?