Leading to Avoid Infectious Behavior

Grumpiness and Stupidity are Remarkably Contagious

Old-timers will remember that the Osmonds topped the pop charts in 1971 when they sang,

One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch.”

But when it comes to leading others to work together, this mantra just isn’t so. On the contrary, grumpiness and stupidity are remarkably contagious.

Stanford professor of management Robert Sutton cited recent research that tracked employees’ moods.1 This study found that the impact of negative interactions with bosses and coworkers on employees’ feelings were five times stronger than positive interactions. Rotten apples drag down and infect everyone else.

Effective Leaders Intervene

The upshot is that leaders can make a difference, and need to intervene quickly to deal with rotten apples before they spoil the whole bunch.

Here are four smart tips to expel the infection:

  1. Show them the love. Many leaders spend endless hours attending meetings, managing conflict, and shuffling papers, but don’t take even a few moments to make people feel appreciated. The power of expressing that good things will happen to your people, and communicating that to them — the self-fulfilling prophecy — goes a long way.
  2. Serve as a human shield. The best leaders protect their people from insults, intrusions, and distractors. A good leader takes pride in absorbing and deflecting bad vibes. The notion that leaders “buffer” the work of the organization from uncertainty and external disturbances is classic and necessary.
  3. Confront the bad apple. The self-fulfilling prophecy doesn’t always work. The unavoidable truth is: rewarding exemplary behavior and penalizing bad behavior is critical to crafting a healthy organizational culture. Use aggressive intervention. If the problem persists, the only solution is to “isolate” (demote, quarantine, or get rid of) the rotten apple – and let people know why you did it.
  4. Know what you don’t know. Effective leaders start by working on themselves. They learn, invest, borrow, and implement ways to reduce the mental and emotional load they heap on followers.

Rotten apples don’t have to spoil the whole. Good habits – beginning with the leader – can turn the bunch toward health again.


1Robert L. Sutton, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the Best, and Learn from the Worst. 2010. Self-published.

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