Does One Bad Apple Spoil the Team?

The Impact of Bad Behavior on a  Team.

The old adage goes “one bad apple spoils the barrel.”

In our line of work, we see the best and worst of business and human behavior.  Recently, I was working with a company that reminded me of the old bad apple adage and got me wondering – can one bad apple ruin a team or a business?

This client, Company X, had a high performer (let’s call him “John Bad Appleseed”).  John was a nightmare – he was loud, aggressive, constantly missed deadlines and was even verbally abusive to his teammates.  Blame, bullying and lying were his ‘go-to’ team building skills.  Despite the bad internal behavior, he put on a fantastic mask in front of clients and executives.  They thought John was stellar and walked on water.

The CEO was wrestling with what to do about John.  John was the highest grossing sales person in the company.  Yet, his team’s turnover was massive and costing the company money.  Moreover, John’s mask was starting slip to the external world.  The CEO had recently received client complaints – John was missing client meetings, he frequently missed deadlines and became belligerent to the client when he was called on it.

The CEO quipped – How much damage can one guy do, right?

WRONG.  Oh so wrong.

The Bad Apple Effect

Until recently, the commonly held belief was that group dynamics dictated individual behavior.  Team performance research has changed that perspective.  Will Felps, Associate Professor at Rotterdam School of Management, research uncovered that one “Bad Apple” can significantly impact team effectiveness – dropping their performance by 30% to 40%.

Read that again:  One person can drop a team’s performance by 30% to 40%.

If unchecked, team members cope with the “Bad Apple” through common defensive mechanisms like denial, social withdrawal, anger, anxiety and fear.  The team falls apart as trust and culture degrade.  Teammates disengage from the team – mentally and physically – hence the drop in performance.

Taking Control

To boost performance, it’s essential to address the rot in the apple barrel immediately.

1.  Intervention.  Address the behavior with the individual.  If the “Bad Apple” is open to change, it may be as simple as a behavioral course correction with a performance improvement plan.  If the “Bad Apple” is unwilling to change, steps to termination may be in order.

2.  Mend the Team.  This step is often overlooked and one of the most important.  “Bad Apples” can leave quite a path of destruction.  The team has to mend to restore its effectiveness.  Set up a meeting and let the teammates talk about how they feel and the impact the “Bad Apple” had on them personally.  Then, come up with a plan to rebuild trust and to move forward.  Remember the deeper the rot – the longer the recovery.

3.  Get Proactive. The easiest way to deal with “Bad Apples” is to screen them out BEFORE you hire them.  When hiring, look for cues on how the individual behaves in the interview.  Ask interviewees to tell you about stressful situations during their career.  Listen for any undercurrents of aggressive, negative or blame behavioral traits.  Also, watch their interactions with everyone – from your EA to a parking attendant to a barista in the coffee shop.  Those interactions can be extremely telling.

Back to Company X

So, what did Company X do with “John Bad Appleseed”?

The CEO had a tough conversation with John and placed him on a Performance Plan.  John believed he was ‘above the rules’ and ignored the CEO.  John was fired shortly thereafter.

Six months after John’s departure, the sale team surpassed their quarterly sales targets.  The CEO was able to recruit a high performer from the competition.  The recruit had wanted to work at Company X for years, but was unwilling to make the move largely due to John and the toxic culture he created.  The sales team had their best year in company history.

How About Them Apples?!?


Have you experienced the “Bad Apple” Phenomenon?  What did you do?

One thought on “Does One Bad Apple Spoil the Team?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s