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December 22, 2008

Bad Apple Behavior


Can one person in a workplace ruin a workplace? In other words, can one bad apple spoil the whole bunch?

That’s the question Dr. Will Felps, Rotterdam Business School professor, sought to answer. His findings were published under the title of, How, When, and Why Bad Apples Spoil the Barrel. [preview available].

This American Life brought to life Felps’ work in a recent episode. It’s a fascinating piece, worthy of spending a few minutes listening to. (Listen here.)

The gist is this … Felps’ study indicates the spillover effect of Bad Apple behavior can undermine the success of a group. Groups in this study infected with a Bad Apple, performed 30%-to-40% worse than similar groups without a Bad Apple.

This study identified three personality types linked to Bad Apple behavior. I’m sure we’ve all experienced one of these personalities in our group project work:

This personality will make rude and insulting comments directed at others. He’ll criticize other people’s ideas without offering up alternative ideas of his own.

The attitude of indifference persists within this person. Verbally and non-verbally, he’ll convey feelings of “whatever” and “who cares.”

The Debbie Downer of the group. This person will complain about how unenjoyable the project is and openly doubts the group will succeed.

(Interestingly, these represent some of the same destructive on-the-job personalities Dr. Bob Sutton wrote about in THE NO ASSHOLE RULE.)

What’s a group to do if they are burdened with a Bad Apple?

Sure, you could confront and try to reform the Bad Apple. However, a better approach could be to follow Jim Collins’ advice from BUILT TO LAST and have the virus, that is the miserable person, ejected before the spillover effect happens.

Mucho kudos to the My Curate's Egg blog for some super-sleuthing link finds.


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JM: calling them 'bad apples' is probably too cutesy given their affect on teams and companies. Let's call them "toxic agents," on a par with staph infections in hospitals.

It sounds like Dr. Felps has quantified what most of us have experienced. When the toxic agent can only funtion as leader and becomes a saboteur when cast as a team member. When the toxic agent is the CEO who can't see anyone else as hero. When the naysayer shoots down everything with 'we tried that, and it didn't work.' Or maybe the prima dona who skates above the rules, with the CEO's blessing.

Toxic agents need to be excised from the team. Trying to reform them takes time away from the real purpose of the project.

Just as dangerous as bad apples is someone who doesn't fall into that classification but who unduly influences the group to commit to a course of action no one wants. Sometimes not even the person suggesting it. See the "Abilene Paradox



I think one reason that bad apples have a negative effect on productivity is that they have a negative effect on the culture that ripples throughout the organization. Bad apples bring down morale and make it less fun to be at work, so everyone around is less motivated to help the team succeed.

Hi John,
First of all thank you for sharing gist of the book by Dr. Will Felps. I would like add one more personality called underutilized. This individual is very motivated with his experience and always try to prove he is better then his job profile.
This person is very dangerous in terms of team's integrity and self-respect. His key role is top define his knowledge far better as compare to work profile to other role mates. Many a time it happen he gets so focused to other activities rather key performance of his role and later fail to deliver.
I know one of such individual and it’s a perfect misfit to the organization.

Manish Rajvaidya

I have a very different 'take' on this situation, as per the book I'm currently writing "The Psychology of Buy-In".
Each person in a group has a unique set of personal, idiosyncratic criteria that make up his/her belief systems and which s/he makes decisions from. And, s/he filters out data that comes into conflict with these beliefs - hence some form of acting out when asked to do something that runs counter to his/her beliefs and internal criteria.

I have developed a model that teaches people and teams how to understand the filtering criteria, and shift it to get in line with the group - or have the group come up with a new set of criteria that all can abide by.

In most cases, it's quite simple, as we are just re-weighting the criteria. For example: if the change is being directed by an outside supervisor who has not taken many personal factors of group members into account while giving them a new directive, the supervisor/change will be met with resistance and a Bad Apple can easily shift the balance. But if the group can be asked to come up with a hierarchy of beliefs that will enable them to buy-in, all can be enlisted and you can then have a Good Apple Effect.

Most of the time, people are being asked to do behaviors they hadn't bought into when they took the job. But if you can make the change be imbedded into, carried by, and agreed to by, internal beliefs and criteria, most people will be happy to join in.

It's only when change is inflicted on people that they come up against fear-based internal beliefs and their worst-case scenarios kick in. But it's quite easy to elicit buy-in when working from the inside-out (i.e. from people's beliefs and criteria).


Interesting you mentioned the Abilene Paradox. It reminded me of this instance: Many of my colleagues at an organization that's suffered from high turnover were encouraged by their superiors to read a book called "Good to Great." The concept of gathering the best team is summarized in the book as "getting the right people on the bus." There had been high turnover for many reasons and one person remarked to me as he was walking out the door: "Maybe I'm the wrong person for this bus or maybe it's the bus to Abilene."

Another thing about trouble makers is that they can take up so much of your time trying to deal with them (just to do their work, let-alone trying to stop them spreading bad vibes to others).

What can you do with a co-worker who embodies a fetid cocktail of all three bad apple personas? An wields his infectious poisons with the big bad bully attitude of a silver back gorilla?


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