OCTOBER 24, 2011
How a Few Bad Apples Ruin Everything
What harm can a handful of nasty or incompetent employees do? A lot more than you may think.
By ROBERT SUTTON
Superstars get a lot of attention from bosses. But bad apples deserve even more.
A growing body of research suggests that having just a few nasty, lazy or incompetent characters around can ruin the performance of a team or an entire organization – no matter how stellar the other employees.
Bad apples distract and drag down everyone, and their destructive behaviors, such as anger, laziness and incompetence, are remarkably contagious. Leaders who let a few bad apples in the door – perhaps in exchange for political favors – or look the other way when employees are rude or incompetent are setting the stage for even their most skilled people to fail.
It’s crucial for leaders to screen out bad apples before they’re hired – and if they do slip through the cracks, bosses must make every effort to reform or (if necessary) oust them.
Spreading the Vibes
It’s easy to understand why bosses would rather focus on attracting and developing superstars. A mountain of research shows that stars and geniuses can deliver astounding results. And, obviously, it’s more fun and inspiring to focus on top-performing, energetic employees.
But studies of everything from romantic relationships to workplace encounters show that negative interactions can pack a much bigger wallop than positive ones. The reason is simple: “Bad is stronger than good,” as psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues put it. The negative thoughts, feelings and performance they trigger in others are far larger and longer lasting than the positive responses generated by more constructive colleagues.
Consider research on bad apples and team effectiveness by Will Felps, Terence R. Mitchell and Eliza Byington. They examined the impact
of team members who were deadbeats (“withholders of effort”), downers (who “express pessimism, anxiety, insecurity and irritation”) and jerks (who violate “interpersonal norms of respect”). An experiment by Mr. Felps found that having just one slacker or jerk in a group can bring down performance by 30% to 40%.
How can organizations squash those negative influences? The easiest way, obviously, is to avoid hiring bad apples in the first place – and that means taking a different approach to assessing candidates for jobs.
The usual means of screening are often weak when it comes to determining if a job candidate is a bad apple. Candidates may have gone to the best schools or may come across as charming and brilliant in interviews – thus disguising their laziness, incompetence or nastiness.
That’s why one of the best ways to screen employees is to see how they actually do the job under realistic conditions. Akshay Kothari and Ankit Gupta favor that approach. When they’re hiring new people for their Palo Alto, Calif., company, Pulse, which makes a news-reading app for mobile devices, they consider evaluations from peers and superiors and do multiple rounds of interviews. But they say the most effective thing is to bring candidates in for a day or two and give them a short job to accomplish. (The candidates are paid for their time.)
Not only do they learn a lot about the candidates’ technical skills, Messrs. Kothari and Gupta say, but they also learn about their personality. How do they deal with setbacks? Do they know when to ask for help and to give others help? Is the candidate the kind of person they want to work with?