The Bad Apple Syndrome

It is well-known that negative interactions have a bigger impact than positive ones, and that people tend to remember a person’s bad qualities more vividly than their good ones. These observations were included in a recent Wall Street Journal Story titled, “How a Few Bad Apples Ruin Everything.”

Such statements have serious implications for productivity in the workplace. Or, as the Journal article notes, citing an experiment from the Rotterdam School of Management: “Having just one slacker or jerk in a group can bring down performance by 30% to 40%.”

“I am quite sure that bad is stronger than good,” says Wharton operations and information management professor Maurice E. Schweitzer. “It is true in most incentive domains and it is true with respect to emotions. Anger, for example, is typically a more durable emotion than happiness.”

In terms of employees or members of an organization, Schweitzer adds, “a bad employee can cause considerable damage. One unpleasant interaction can have incidental effects on many other, unrelated judgments and decisions. My own work and the work of others document this. Bad employees can harm the morale, effectiveness and even the connection others feel with the organization. For example, the pride I feel as part of my institution is diminished when others I dislike are also a part of it.”

To extinguish “corrosive behavior, leaders need to not only model the right behavior, but also censure bad behavior,” Schweitzer notes. “When an employee fires off an insensitive e-mail, puts his feet on the table during a meeting or inappropriately puts down another employee, it should be treated seriously, directly and clearly. Few undesirable behaviors that are tolerated go away on their own.”

The Journal article, written by Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University, states that bad apples are “remarkably contagious,” and that leaders who ignore the fact that certain employees are rude, lazy or incompetent “are setting the stage for even their most skilled people to fail.” Sutton cites companies that have taken steps to deal with the bad apple problem: One manager says he acts quickly to fire the problem employee; another says she gives several hints and then tries to position the employee’s departure as for his or her own good. The best approach, of course, is to thoroughly vet potential employees so that hiring mistakes are not made in the first place.

“Consistent with the Journal piece,” says Schweitzer, “is that leaders need to focus on this issue through the attraction of employees — e.g., you become known as a great place to work or as a place that develops and mentors junior people — the selection of employees, the retention of good employees and the dismissal of bad ones. In many places, collegiality and cooperation is insufficiently rewarded.”

Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade addresses this topic in a paper titled, “Why Does Affect Matter in Organizations?” (“Affect” is another word for “emotions” in organizational behavior studies.) The answer, she notes in a Knowledge@Wharton article, is that employees’ moods, emotions and overall dispositions have an impact on job performance, decision making, creativity, turnover, teamwork, negotiations and leadership.

“The state of the literature shows that affect matters because people are not isolated ‘emotional islands.’ Rather, they bring all of themselves to work, including their traits, moods and emotions, and their affective experiences and expressions influence others,” note Barsade and co-author Donald Gibson of Fairfield University’s Dolan School of Business.

An “affective revolution” has occurred over the last 30 years as academics and managers alike have come to realize that employees’ emotions are integral to what happens in an organization, says Barsade. “Everybody brings their emotions to work. You bring your brain to work. You bring your emotions to work. Feelings drive performance. They drive behavior and other feelings. Think of people as emotion conductors.”

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"The Bad Apple Syndrome" Knowledge@Wharton, [November 03, 2011].
Accessed [July 25, 2014]. [http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/the-bad-apple-syndrome/]


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