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Managing bad apples

Which of your co-workers is the biggest detriment to your team? Is it the one who is the laziest? Perhaps the one who complains the most? Maybe the gossip? And more importantly, what do you do about this person who is instigating such bad behavior?

The idea that one bad apple ruins the bunch has long been the thinking of management scholars, and is the basis for the best-selling “The No Asshole Rule” by Robert Sutton. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about over the years, especially as it pertains to hiring. How do you select for individuals that will avoid engaging in bad behavior once they join the team? And, more importantly, how do you protect new hires from bad behavior instigated by long-standing members of the team?

An interesting piece of research came out recently which sheds light on how bad apples can in fact ruin the bunch. We’ve known for a long time that positive reciprocity is a powerful force – we treat others as they treat us. Now we have evidence that this is prevalent for negative behaviors at work too. When otherwise “good” co-workers encounter negative behavior from a “bad apple” instigator what do they do? They reciprocate! They engage in the same behavior, and often will respond by escalating, making the bad behavior that much prevalent.

So what do you do? If you can’t stop the instigator, at least stop the reciprocal behavior (something about “turning the other cheek” comes to mind!). If you know that the bad behavior can spiral and potentially harm the culture of your unit, take aims to isolate the bad behavior. Think about this like a bruised piece of fruit. You cut out the bruise and isolate it so that it doesn’t ruin the entire fruit. Do the same with your instigators. Train your “responders” not to reciprocate, so that the negative behavior engaged in by the instigator doesn’t go anywhere.

This may not “fix” the instigator, but this can prevent the instigator from ruining your team.

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