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Bad apples in your workplace?

"One bad apple spoils the barrel." Intuitively we know this maxim is true. Research at the University of Washington Business School affirms it.

Will Felps, Terence Mitchell and Eliza Byington defined three types of bad apples:
• Slackers who don't do their share of the work
• Perennially unhappy pessimists
• Mean-spirited bullies

"One bad apple spoils the barrel." Intuitively we know this maxim is true. Research at the University of Washington Business School affirms it.

Will Felps, Terence Mitchell and Eliza Byington defined three types of bad apples:
• Slackers who don't do their share of the work
• Perennially unhappy pessimists
• Mean-spirited bullies

The researchers found that team members will first try moral suasion with a "bad apple" co-worker. If that fails, they'll complain to bosses or take other steps in the attempt to expel the person from the team. But often they lack the power to do so.


Here lies the nub of the problem. Bad apples wouldn't be spoiling any barrels if supervisors did their jobs. What gives bad apples their destructive potential is that they have protection from higher up. Perhaps they're relatives or friends of the owner. Or they've worked at the company a long time or are perceived to have some essential skill. Perhaps the supervisor is simply afraid to take them on.


Once co-workers realize that the negative behaviour will persist without consequence, and they have no recourse, they start to disengage from the team. Absenteeism and turnover rise. Worse still, other team members start to act like bad apples themselves.


Why does this happen? The researchers identified a spillover effect. The mere act of observing anti-social behaviour, they wrote, "makes those behaviours more mentally accessible and lowers inhibitions about behaving in a similar way." Have you ever been in a group where someone told a racist joke? If someone laughs and no one speaks up in protest, another person feels emboldened to tell a similar joke. A group norm of respect and tolerance has been weakened.


Spillover can also be very subtle. Just the display of negative moods by posture, body language and facial expression (e.g. a cashier slumped over the till) can cause others to feel and act more negative themselves.


Productivity, creativity and cooperation all fall victim to the bad apple. People see slackers doing minimal, slipshod work day after day and think, "Why bust my butt?" Or they know the bully or cynic will deride their ideas so they don't even bother to offer them.


Much though we may wish otherwise, the research demonstrates that negative behaviour outweighs positive behaviour. Bringing in a really good apple won't save the barrel if the bad apple is left in there. We expect positive behaviour from others as a matter of course. It's negative behaviour that catches our attention and causes us to lose faith in an organization that won't address it.


If you suspect you have a bad apple on your staff, start paying attention. Write notes on specific behaviours you observe. At first, "attitude" may seem hard to identify but in reality we only know someone's attitude because of the behavioural cues they give us. Observe the posture, gestures and expressions that telegraph, "I don't care," or "Why bother?"
Then hold a coaching session. Describe the unacceptable behaviour and spell out what you want. Give positive reinforcement for any improvements. Follow up with progressive disciplinary action if the behaviour continues. In short, handle it like any other performance problem.


When hiring new employees, screen carefully and set a meaningful trial period, long enough to give you a realistic picture of their performance. Solicit confidential feedback from co-workers before you consider the trial period successfully completed. And make sure that the "open door" is really open to all your staff.
As researcher Terence Mitchell cautions, "...move quickly to deal with such problems because the negativity of just one individual is pervasive and destructive and can spread quickly." •

 

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