The ‘bad apple effect’

The importance of developing and maintaining a strong team culture that supports your organisation’s vision and values and strives for high productivity can’t be over-stressed. Part of that is your duty to turn around ‘bad apples’. When you can’t ‘freshen them up’ them, you want to remove them before they sour the rest of your team.

Let’s call this the ‘bad apple effect’: It’s a lot harder than you probably think to say ‘No’ to someone who eggs you on, even when you’re being prodded to do something you know isn’t right.

Have you heard of Stanley Milgram’s famous, actually infamous, experiment? (If not, check it out here; it’s chilling reading.) Doing what you’re told, as in the Milgram experiment, is sometimes referred to as the ‘white coat effect’ or the ‘authority effect’.

But it isn’t only authority figures we find it hard to say ‘No’ to. We don’t want to say ‘No’ to colleagues and friends, either; heck, it’s even hard to say ‘No’ to complete strangers!

A series of studies published in an article in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (9 Dec. 2013), concluded that instigators of undesirable behaviour have a huge influence on others and can easily persuade them into acting unethically, such as telling a lie, committing vandalism and taking office supplies home for personal use.

(Given that people are so easily influenced to commit undesirable acts, this research has implications for bullying as well as building productive teams.)

The effect of social pressure and the reluctance to say ‘No’ may even have contributed to the global financial crisis. In 2007 Moody’s gave a poor rating to a group of securities underwritten by Countrywide Financial, the largest mortgage lender in the US; Countrywide complained the assessment was too tough and Moody’s changed its rating the very next day, even though no new information had come to light. It seems the Moody’s representative felt pressured to acquiesce to Countrywide’s request to soften its rating, with the devastating consequences to the US housing market and the world’s economy that we’re all familiar with.

It’s far easier (about twice as easy, according to these experiments) than we think for one person to persuade another to engage in inappropriate behaviour. And it’s easier than we think for one person to change a team norm and value system for the worse. Social pressure is powerful, and ‘bad apples’ pose risks that you need to address.

Discussion questions

How do you deal with negative influencers in your team? Perhaps you have witnessed the ‘bad apple’ effect yourself.