What evidence is there for this old saying that one bad apple spoils the barrel? Most of us will have had experience of a difficult or disruptive individual having a disproportionate effect on the whole team. A fascinating paper in Research in Organisational Behaviour (Felps et al, 2006) reviews extensive research evidence to confirm this. The concept of the “bad apple” is in itself rather pejorative and not necessarily helpful, but captures the idea that one negative individual can contaminate the rest of the group. We recognise several parallels with our work in healthcare teams.

It is not always easy to determine whether team dysfunction is the result of one individual or several team members. Over time, individual behaviours gradually evolve into group dysfunction. One “difficult” individual can provoke fear, anxiety and defensiveness in others to the point where gradually the group members disengage (“de-identify”) from the team and, out of self-protection, begin to work independently. Other research shows that negative emotions from one team member may have damaging and long-lasting effects on other colleagues – for example work in healthcare has shown that simply witnessing rude behaviour or conflict reduces concentration, creativity and effective problem solving in other staff.

How do teams respond to a negative individual?

Research suggests three typical responses:

1) Changing the person’s behaviour (motivational intervention).

2) Removing negative people (rejection).

3) Protecting oneself (defensiveness).

The first two of these requires that the team members have some power. Frequently this is not the case. When there is not a viable way to deal with that individual, perhaps because of organizational constraints (lack of good processes; weak senior management, etc) then defensiveness is the only recourse. In many cases the difficult individual may themselves be, or be seen to be, powerful – perhaps because of who they know, what they know (“skeletons in the cupboard”) or their exceptional technical expertise or ability to attract funds. Such high-benefit/high-cost individuals should either be removed or ring-fenced to minimize their contaminating effect. In practice this isn’t always easy; but such behaviour does need to be contained for the sake of the wider group.

Poor leadership is almost always a factor – allowing the negative person to persist in their behaviour, leaving the team feeling even more helpless and unsupported. Therefore team members adopt other ways to cope. They focus excessively on interpersonal relationships rather than the primary task and purpose of their work; they withdraw and “do their own thing”; they won’t go the extra mile for colleagues, often working to rule. This is how individual dysfunction gradually becomes team dysfunction. Interestingly, research suggests that whilst it takes only one individual to destroy the performance of a team, it takes more than one individual to restore team effectiveness and performance. Hence the asymmetric effect of the negative individual in the group – otherwise known as “the bad is stronger than good” effect. Trust is also said to be asymmetric – easier to destroy than to build.

How do organisations deal with negative behaviour within a team? Better selection and training, more robust appraisal and performance management are key. Clear team roles, team processes (e.g. managing conflict; making decisions) and leadership are crucial determinants of team effectiveness. Most importantly, nipping bad apple behaviour in the bud and providing tools to empower the team to self-manage behaviour: the famous “teamship rules” from Clive Woodward’s “Winning” book on the England Rugby team is an excellent and simple example.

Felps, W, Mitchell, TR and Byington, E (2006) How, when and why bad apples spoil the barrel: Negative group members and dysfunctional groups. Research in Organizational Behaviour, Volume 27, 175-222

by Dr. Jenny King