Managing Groups and Teams/How can managers deal with difficult team members?

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Imagine for a moment that you have been selected to lead an elite team tasked with the lofty goal of solving world hunger. This team is made up of highly skilled and competent individuals who are ready to solve this problem. The group starts off with a motivational speech from the President and then they go directly into an NGT session, followed by round robin brainstorming. Just as the group brainstorming gets underway one of the group members begins interrupting and poking fun at other peoples’ ideas. At first people respond with a courtesy laugh, but before long they are agitated and ready to leave. Whether or not the “Bad Apple” knows it or not he or she has just dismantled the world hunger dream team.

According to Lori Howard (2004), bad apples can be appropriately labeled “de-jellers” who are very difficult to work with. The name as it implies works to dissolve a team rather than bind it together. In this paper we review the behavior of a negative team member and its powerful detrimental influences on the team. These de-jellers are people who persistently exhibit one or more of the following behaviors: withholding effort from the group, expressing negative affect, or violating important interpersonal norms, thereby impairing group functioning. Once defined, we transition to detailing the psychological states of the teammates, how those psychological states lead to defensive behavioral reactions (e.g. outbursts, mood maintenance, withdrawal), and finally, how these various manifestations of defensiveness influence important team dynamics (e.g. cooperation, creativity). Finally, we discuss key actions that might reduce the negative impact of the bad apple or even help the bad apple become an effective team member.

We focus on instances where constructive responses are non-beneficial or unresponsive and negative behavior persists day after day. A bad apple violates norms of equity, positive affect, and appropriate social functioning.

Bad Apple Types[edit]

When the performance of an individual is in question, the team first makes an attributional judgment. Attribution theory suggests that the team will attempt to determine whether the poor performance is internal or external in nature (Taggar and Neubert, 2004). External behaviors are those deemed to be caused by the environment the team is functioning in, or beyond the control of the team members. Example of failures likely to be deemed external are the computer system crashing just prior to an important client meeting, resulting in critical data being lost or the boss denying access to a critical resource for budgetary reasons. Teams do not generally react negatively toward failures labeled as an External locus attribution. In fact pro-social behavior may result.

In the event of an internal attribution, the reaction of the team requires an additional distinction. In this case the team must decide (albeit internally) if the failure is a result of lack of conscientiousness, or a lack of cognitive ability (Taggar and Neubert, 2004).

Withholders of effort or slackers shirk their responsibilities to the group and free ride off the efforts of others. Behavioral examples of withholding effort consist largely of not doing something – of not completing tasks or contributing adequate time, not taking on risks or responsibilities, or not disclosing aptitudes in the hope that others will compensate (Felps, Mitchell, Byington, 2004).

The incompetent team member is one who causes a drop in team performance as a result of their lack of knowledge or skill.

An interpersonal deviant exhibits behaviors that are recognized as violations of social norms. According to Merton’s Strain Theory (Merton 1968), culture defines things people should want (i.e. goals and the means of obtaining them). Deviance occurs when there is a discrepancy between the goal and the means of obtaining it. The strain that is created causes people to engage in deviant behavior.

A dissenter may continually express a negative mood or attitude. This person refuses to abide by the dictates of or resists adherence to the team. The member negatively affects the emotion, mood and attitudes, and continually annoys the rest in the team. The often use of ‘but’ is typical symptom a de-jeller exhibits. A dissenter is independent-minded and often speaks/thinks for himself. However, a dissenter can be creative, and risk-taker.

A bad apple impacts motivation, creativity, and learning of the team. In addition, the team loses on the integrative processes of cooperation and conflict.

Typical Responses to Negative Members[edit]

Across disparate literatures, the same reactions to negative behavior crop up again and again under different labels. We believe that these reactions can be parsimoniously collapsed into three classes of teammate response – motivational intervention, rejection, and defensiveness. The responses differ in their aims - e.g. towards either changing the negative person’s behavior (motivational intervention), removing negative people (rejection), or protecting one's own self (defensiveness).

The team typically tends to ‘reject’ the bad apple. However, motivational intervention can be applied to change negative behavior (Orcutt, 1973). Influence tactics include confrontations, punishments, withholding of resources, and demands for apologies (Felps, Mitchell, Byington, 2004). If the team member responds to any of these tactics, the problem ceases to exist. If however motivational intervention does not work, the remaining options for the team are rejection or defensiveness.

The simplest response to deal with an incompetent is to rearrange the team in a way that the responsibilities of the incompetent do not overlap with their weak skill set. However, another common response can initiate what Manzoni and Barsoux (1998) have labeled “The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome”.

Manzoni and Barsoux (1998) define The “Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome” in terms of a boss and subordinate relationship, but it can easily be extrapolated to the team setting. It begins often with good interactions between the boss and subordinate, however, there is one triggering event such as a late report or a sub par presentation. This leads the boss to question the effectiveness (competence) of the subordinate. The boss then gives more specific instructions to the subordinate, more carefully supervises him, and dedicates more time to determining courses of action (in essence, doing the job of the subordinate). The Subordinate, sensing this lack of confidence, withdraws from the boss and from the job. He may also react by taking on more difficult projects that are out of reach in an attempt to wow the boss. The boss interprets the overreaching as additional bad judgment. Even if the subordinate is successful in task completion, the boss may write it off as luck. The boss increases intervention, and more openly shows his frustration and lack of confidence, hence causing the employee to become even more despondent (Manzoni and Barsoux, 1998). The Set-Up-To-Fail syndrome is both self enforcing, and self defeating. And the intentions of the boss are warped into a negative feedback loop resulting in the de-motivation of the subordinate. In a team setting, scrutiny of the team can feel like ganging up to the incompetent team member, who will in turn withdraw, thereby increasing the frustration of team members.

Merton suggests the following five modes of adaptation to strain caused by a negative member: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion. The axes of Merton’s deviance typology are cultural goals and institutional means with conformity being defined as accepting both, retreatism rejecting both and innovation and ritualism being a combination of the two. Rebellion, a most recognizable strain seen in case of an interpersonal deviant, actually creates its own space outside the typology as a mode that uses new goals and means.

Diffusion of the negative effect is "unintentional, uncontrollable and largely inaccessible" (Felps, Mitchell, Byington, 2004). The negative effect often leads to a defensive response emotion - exploding - a typical reaction to attack a frustrating person (the dissenter).

An extreme response to a bad apple could be to simply kick the member off of the team, or fire the individual. Such solutions are not always possible, and can often be quite expensive in terms of lost time for a project.

In summary, typical externally directed responses include acting against the negative member to restore feelings of autonomy, identity, self-esteem, and well-being. Internally directed responses involve taking steps to change one’s own moods, emotions, or appraisals.

General Recommendations[edit]

We recommend a general four step solution that can be applied to any type of bad apple on the team. We also list the specific solutions for each individual type of bad apple in the later part of this paper.

Our general solution is detailed as follows

Step 1: Confront the Problem, Head On[edit]

It is important not to fall victim to one of the classic team dysfunctions, Fear of conflict (Lencioni, 2002). The problem within the team must be dealt with, the earlier the better. If left alone, it will only fester, causing greater distraction to the team.

It may be that the offender is not even aware of their negative behavioral patterns. By merely pointing them out, the path to positive change is initiated.

The confrontation should be arranged in a neutral location and not one where the problem has occurred (i.e. the team meeting room). It is better to not have the confrontation directly after a behavior has occurred, as the confrontation may derail the rest of the meeting. Furthermore, for a team, the whole team should be present for the confrontation. Studies have shown that individuals will go easy on problem members because they feel the burden of responsibility (Liden, Wayne and Kraimer, 2001). If necessary, the confrontation can be initiated by an individual with formal authority, but the presence of others will solidify the commitment of the Bad Apple to any resultant corrective actions.

Step 2: Point Out the Behaviors That Are Causing Problems for the Team[edit]

It is up to the team to first make the Bad Apple aware of their negative behavior. It is important to focus on behaviors of the person, and not degrade into personal attacks. It is useful to use the formula suggested by Whetton and Cameron (1995):

I have a problem. When you do X, Y results, and I feel Z.

Where X is the specific negative behavior, Y is the observable consequences, and Z are the feelings associated with the response. For instance – “John, when you come late to the meeting [behavior], we have less time to meet as a team [consequence], and I worry that we won’t be able to finish this project in the allotted time [feelings].” This will work better than, “John, you’re always late to the meetings and it messes the whole project up. We’re never going to finish on time!” which will likely result in defensive behaviors.

A dialogue should result. Furthermore, the confrontation initiators should examine their own behaviors to see if they are contributing to the problem. Examples of this include denying training to an incompetent for budgetary reasons, scheduling meetings at inconvenient times for the late arriver, or overloading the slacker with work.

Step 3: Determine Solution and Success Measures[edit]

Once the negative behavior has been exposed, it is time to determine the solution. It is important to involve the Bad Apple in the determination of the solution. This will enhance the commitment process. Robert Cialdini (2001) states that, “People align with their clear commitments. Make [them] active, public, and voluntary”. The solutions to each Bad Apple Archetype depend on the situation, and any laundry list of problems and solutions wouldn’t do justice to the complexity of the modern team environment. The solutions must be determined in the team setting.

Equally important to determining the solution is deciding how to measure success. At what point is the problem considered resolved? Like the solution, the success measures should be developed and agreed upon by both the offender and the rest of the team. The measures of success should be objective and easily observable (Blanchard and Lorber, 1984).

Step 4: Accountability[edit]

If there is no improvement reduction of the negative behavior, punitive consequences must be initiated. A recent study showed that it is not appropriate for a single team member to be responsible for determining the appropriate punishment for the bad apple. The determination should be made by either the entire rest of the team, or an individual with formal authority. If an individual is responsible for the punishment, they are likely to reduce the severity of the punishment because the responsibility is not diffused. The same research indicates that this tendency is eliminated when the individual making the decision has formal authority over the team (Liden and Kraimer, 2001).

Specific Issues When Dealing with Specific Bad Apple Archetypes[edit]

We suggest the following specific steps be added on to the above listed general solution when dealing with negative team members. Each specific type of bad apple discussed in this paper has a requirement that needs to be individually addressed.

The key task when dealing with an underperformer is to determine whether the lack of progress is due to lack of conscientiousness or lack of cognitive ability. It makes no sense to motivate an ignorant team member or to train a slacker.

First the team should attempt to determine the source of lack of conscientiousness. The team should consider if the demotivation is a result of internal team dynamics, as set forth in the “Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome” or some external factor. If the team decides that the lack of conscientiousness may be the result of the team dynamics, then the confrontation should focus on the rest of the team as well as the slacker. If the lacking effort is a function of matters external to the team, such as family life, or competing priorities, the team can only address those issues directly and attempt to motivate the slacker via general influence tactics. If the team has the power to remove the slacker, it may choose to do so in the accountability phase of the solution. If not, then steps can then be taken to escalate the situation to the point where dismissal or removal can occur.
In the case of the conscientious team member who lacks cognitive ability, additional training should be provided if appropriate, thereby strengthening team cohesiveness and commitment. It is especially true for the case of incompetence, that the offender is paradoxically unaware of their ignorance, and may even perceive their abilities to be above average (Kruger and Dunning, 1999). The skills required to recognize good work are often the very skills the incompetent individual lacks. Alternately, assignments maybe re-arranged to make the best possible use of the existing skill-set of the incompetent. This is useful when performed in conjunction with additional training.
Interpersonal deviant 
This type of bad apple is one of the most difficult types to deal with because they make people feel so uncomfortable by their direct violation of normally accepted behaviors. Hence, in addition to confronting the individual, you have to appeal to what Sykes and Matza (1957) term a “higher loyalty” as part of their neutralization theory. The basic idea is to appeal to something that matters to them in an effort to change their behavior. In most cases, social pressure will not work, because they have no trouble violating social norms. The secret is finding out what principles are important to them (e.g. friendship) and applying those in such a way to curb rebellion.
If a dissenter leads to relation conflict, the manager needs to address it by the above mentioned general solution. However, a dissenter is beneficial for the team if he leads to task conflict. At first, other team members may consider the dissenter to be a nuisance, but eventually the group recognizes that his questions and negative viewpoints often avert problems and help the group make more sound decisions. The dissenter needs to be engaged to channel his/her strengths. A manager needs to draw out his/her ideas, listen to the questions, and provide information to understand their position. According to Whetton and Cameron (1995), aggressive or harsh behaviors sometimes observed in interpersonal confrontations often reflect the frustrations of people who have good intentions, but are unskilled in handling intense, emotional experiences. Coaching may be essential to help the dissenter present ideas in ways appropriate to the company. An effective communicator – to listen and bounce ideas- might be the key resolution to work with a dissenter. Mentoring can be used to set clear expectations, and control impulse responses.

Interpersonal deviants differ from dissenters in that dissenters are actually expressing negative behavior that can be channeled to a positive purpose, while rebellious interpersonal deviants seek to change the system and are not receptive to having their energies channeled. In both instances you can make the parties aware of their behaviors in an effort to bring them into line. However, the difference in response to behavior identification is the dissenter may actually accept to constructive feedback and change while the interpersonal deviant may cease the behavior, but not really change their overall course.


Before the world hunger dream team disbands you suggest taking a 15 minute stretch break. You turn to Joe (the bad apple) who is sitting next to you and ask him if he would like a cup of coffee. He accepts and on the way to the coffee shop you have a nice social chat. Once you have coffee cups in hand you confront Joe on his disruptive behavior. You explain specifically that his interruptions and fun poking are causing division in the team. After a brief negotiation you agree that there will be no more interrupting and Joe agrees to structure his comments so as to avoid being condescending. Then you ask his permission to hold him accountable on these items. Joe agrees and you thank him for being willing to adjust his behavior. Once you arrive back in the meeting room you suggest the group review the team contract so everyone is clear on the ground rules. That was a close call, but thanks to your ability to recognize negative behavior and address it promptly the world hunger dream team still has a shot at accomplishing their goal.


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Communication · Creating and Maintaining Team Cohesion