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You are only as strong as your weakest link“. “One bad apple spoils the barrel“. If you think about it, there’s a lot of sayings about the negative difference one person can make. But is this really true? Can one bad employee wreck a team?

There has been some very elegant research done by Will Felps, Terence R Mithcell and Eliza Byington back in 2006 on this issue. They first did a review of all of the current research on the issue of bad employee behaviour, and then conducted clinical tests to find out exactly what happens when one negative group member joins a group.

In their research, they defined negative group member in one of three ways. They used academic language, but the categories were:

  • The slacker – Someone who doesn’t pull their weight, doesn’t take on tasks or responsibilities, who doesn’t contribute or meet deadlines.
  • The jerk – Someone who is obnoxious and puts people down, makes fun of people, these are the ones making ethnic or sexist jokes, publicly embarrasses people and are generally rude.
  • The depressed pessimist – Someone who always believes that anything the company tries is doomed to failure, they are highly anxious, insecure & irritable

I am sure most people at one time or other in their careers have met one of these charmers. Often Maverick employees exhibit these traits. 

But what happens to the group when you add in one of these people? Well according to their findings, the group productivity drops between 30-40%.

Add to that effect, you start to see other team members begin to exhibit the traits of the negative person, which increases the problems for the team in terms of productivity, cooperation, creativity, morale and learning. People are less interested in finishing a task – they just want to “get it over with“.

So the next time a manager avoids dealing with a negative person in the workplace, you may want to point them in the direction of the research, and ask them if they are more willing to reduce their team’s productivity by 30-40% than have an uncomfortable conversation with one person.

If you want more information about the study, here’s a link to an interview with Will Felps, and a link to the full research report “How, When, and Why Bad Apples Spoil the Barrel: Negative Group Members and Dysfunctional Groups”.

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