Thursday, December 2, 2010

Contagious Employee Behavior

Ever have an employee that is less pleasant than you hoped? Someone that is a bad influence on your team? Even if you are aware of negativity, it can be very difficult to deal with. For many, it's easier to hold their breath and hope the problem goes away. But letting a bad apple go unchecked is serious business - and can quickly ruin the whole barrel.

Will Felps, a professor at Rotterdam School of Management, helped us see the high stakes involved here.

Felps’ wife was unhappy at work - she felt it was a cold and unfriendly environment. Then, a funny thing happened. One of her co-workers who was particularly caustic and was always making fun of other people at the office came down with an illness that caused him to be away for several days.

“And when he was gone, my wife said that the atmosphere of the office changed dramatically,” Felps said. “People started helping each other, playing classical music on their radios, and going out for drinks after work. But when he returned to the office, things returned to the unpleasant way they were.

Will Felps teamed up with Terence Mitchell, a professor of management and organization in the Business School and UW psychology professor. In an experiment to see what happens when a bad worker joins a team, they divided people into small groups and gave them a task. One member of the group would be an actor, acting either like a jerk, a slacker or a depressive. And within 45 minutes, the rest of the group started behaving like the bad apple.

It's hard to believe our smart team could be susceptible to a simple psychological event. But these researchers found a single “toxic” or negative team member can be the catalyst for downward spirals in organizations. Teams with a disagreeable member were much more likely to have conflict, have poor communication within the team and refuse to cooperate with one another. Consequently, the teams performed poorly.

Even your pile of stalwart and loyal employees can't 'unspoil' this mess. That's right - Felps and Mitchell found that the negative behavior outweighs positive behavior. “People do not expect negative events and behaviors, so when we see them we pay attention to them, ruminate over them and generally attempt to marshal all our resources to cope with the negativity in some way,” Mitchell said.

Is this where you want your resources going? Is it possible your fleet of talented engineers are spending most of their hours ruminating? Is time in your organization spent concentrating on the negative behavior of one employee?

You've got to pay attention - make sure you have a beat on employee attitudes, behavior and morale - and address these problem people promptly. Call them out on their behavior and determine if it is possible to address the source of the negativity. If you can't change things around, it's time to cut the employee loose.