Keep Bad Apples Away From Your Team

I was listening to episode #370 of the This American Life podcast (which is one of my favorite podcasts), on the topic “Ruining It For The Rest Of Us”. At the beginning of the show, Ira was talking with a researcher who had done studies on the effect of “bad apple” behavior within teams. He looked at what effect someone who is a Jerk (insults other people, critical without offering a better option, etc.), a Slacker (doesn’t do any work, doesn’t seem to care, distracted), or Depressed (certain that ‘this will never work’, doomed to failure, etc.) has on the rest of the people on the team.

It’s obviously not a good thing. But what was surprising is that within 45 minutes, the other people on the team adopted the “bad apple” behavior. They started acting like the bad apple. Turns out it’s contagious.

This got me thinking about team dynamics, and the criteria we use when we build teams, interview people for a job, etc. When it comes to looking at the personality traits, and how well a person can fit within a team, it occurs to me that it’s crucial to avoid someone with those “bad apple” traits, because it will spread to the rest of the team.

Thinking back to teams that I’ve been on, I know this is true. I’ve seen it happen. And I’m really grateful that the team I’m on now at work, Intel Software Network, doesn’t have any Bad Apples to bring us down. I’ve marveled at how great the team dynamic is in this group since I joined almost two years ago, but only now do I realize that the lack of Bad Apples is one of the (probably big) reasons.

So keep Bad Apples away from your teams! It’s hard to make a person change behavior, and if you can avoid it, it’s probably better to not get into that situation in the first place.

Interestingly, the researcher on This American Life said they discovered an antidote to Bad Apple behavior – someone who exhibits strong leadership by asking a LOT of questions, of everybody. In fact, that person in the study was the child of a career diplomat. So if you do get stuck with a Bad Apple on your team, there may still be hope. 🙂