Leadership is Key to Working with a Bad Apple

Several weeks ago, I kicked off a mini-series about Bad Apples. My blogging break notwithstanding, I aim to get back to it.

I’m involved in several different social groups, all of which seem to be going through changes. So I’m seeing new people enter new circles. Most are great, but some struggle to find their place. Even fewer seem to be officially Bad Apples. You know the type. Bad Apples seem to be disruptive for the sake of being disruptive, intent on pushing their way into the social fabric all the while alienating established members of the group. I used to think it was my personal job to bring these people back down to earth. Mostly these days I watch with interest. My primary interest is the impact on the people around them. The bad behavior of one Bad Apple seems to spread like a virus. In other words, one Bad Apple really does spoil the whole bunch.

Here’s what I mean: A new person enters a group. Maybe he was brought to the table by other members who didn’t know his… ahem… quirks. Then, New Guy starts exhibiting Bad Apple behavior: talking over top of people, making everything about himself, belittling other’s skills and contributions, and so on. A funny thing happens. Formerly happy and productive contributing members of the group start to react with Bad Apple behavior of their own. I recently watched a quite talented long term member of one of my groups vehemently defend a step in the process that she had championed changing one week earlier because this week, Bad Apple guy said it was dumb.

It brings to mind a quote that I’ve recently heard: “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” I’ve seen this quote attributed to Gruenter and Whitaker, though I have no idea who they are. Origins aside, the quote illustrates the importance of leadership in creating an environment where everyone feels safe to contribute. If the uncertainty introduced by the behavior of a Bad Apple is not addressed by leadership, the performance of the group – and perhaps the longevity of the group itself – will be compromised.

Does One Bad Apple Really Spoil the Whole Bunch?

I’m currently fascinated by Bad Apples. Bad Apples the metaphor for people, not so much the fruit. But of course there are corollaries. So the first question at hand is, “does one bad apple really spoil the whole bunch? For fruit, the answer is yes. Because ethylene. But what about people? From my experience, the answer is also a resounding yes. But don’t take my word for it. Check out this University of Washington study overview, which defined Bad Apples as “negative people as those who don’t do their fair share of work, who are chronically unhappy and emotionally unstable, or who bully or attack others.” They found that Bad Apples elicited coping mechanisms in other employees such as “denial, social withdrawal, anger, anxiety and fear.”

I know, I know, this is not really new. The saying exists for a reason. However, it does set the stage for some further inquiries I’ve been making around Bad Apples. So stay tuned for the Bad Apple series as we explore Bad Apples in Sports, how to deal with Bad Apples in your circles, and how to avoid becoming a Bad Apple.