Dealing with apples spoiling the bunch


Many of the thousands of Business Daily readers can sit back in our offices and contemplate on times when we had to suffer through miserably negative individuals on our work teams.

Perhaps the destructive person hates every idea, loathes each activity, and complains out loud in response to each situation, and all before giving anything a chance to work or listen to others.

An old but still popular English phrase goes “one bad apple spoils the bunch”. There is scientific truth in the biology of apples in that a rotten fruit in the same close proximity to other fruit will cause them to ripen faster.

But the phrase is also often utilised to explain how one person’s negative attitude and comments can spoil the perceptions, attitudes, and intentions of an entire team. A highly disagreeable teammate does damage team performance.

Social scientist Bret Bradley designed studies whereby he placed individuals in group setting expirements with special instructions to either shoot down ideas and complain or affirm and compliment.

When the individuals in the experiment were instructed to complain and be disagreeable, then others on the team became defensive and essentially more concnered with defending themselves than actually performing their duties.

David Pincus conducted separate experiments and uncovered how on work teams, a proverbial pain in one’s side hurts the social resilience of the other team members. Will Felps, Terence Mitchell, and Eliza Byington research how one bad apple on a cohesive team can cause detrimental affects on the rest of the team and the wider organisation.

The negative behaviour from the team member can cause the rest to feel psychological states of inequity, less trust, and negative emotions that eventually lead to lower cooperation, low viability, low wellbeing, and markedly reduced creativity.

Leaders must deal with disagreeable team members directly and firmly. Do not make the false assumption that as long as they are allowed to vent frustrations, then they will calm down and persist in their work.

Agreeableness is one of the big five personality traits. Employees low in agreeableness and those who aggressively vocalise their discontent will not typcially change their workplace behaviour unless provided direct and specific feedback by someone senior to them in rank or position.

Giving feedback to a disagreeable negativity spinner must not include lose non-specific phrases such as “cheer up”, “give everyone a chance”, “try an activity before shooting it down”. Such positive nebulous feedback does not provide the impetus for change.

Instead, put the feedback in terms of what not to do. Phrase it in the negative, such as “do not interrupt others in order to criticize”, “stop complaining when others share initial ideas”, “cease squashing activities before trying them first”. The human brain deals much better with the power of what not to do when receiving instructions.

If the negative team member does not improve, then a leader must not hesitate to remove them from the team irregardless of their technical skills. Do not wait and hope for the situation to improve on its own. Remove the poison in order to heal and push the team forward.

Will Felps and his team suggest 360-degree evaluations for negative individuals to understand the depth of their issues and the effects on others? But often self-perception bias will make the individual assume that others are ganging up on them.

So, a leader can compliment their direct feedback “do not” statements with 360-degree feedback for more context. However, do not rely solely on it in hopes of self-realisation of the individual.

Remember, it is easy to tear down, but hard to create. Be a creator and strive not to be the one that consistently tears down the efforts of those around you. One bad apple does indeed spoil the bunch.

Dr Scott may be reached on [email protected] or on Twitter: @ScottProfessor