The Bad Apple Theory’s Been Debunked, But Leaders Still Use It

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The bad apple theory is prevalent in today’s business mindset demonstrated by the demotions, layoffs and firings that occur in organizations throughout the world. The theory goes like this: it’s assumed that some people are good and others are bad and when we identify and get rid of the bad ones, we protect the good ones and all is well. The problem is that this doesn’t generally work. At the same time, there are nuances that make the bad apple theory look right. These nuances are emotional contagion and context.

Emotional Contagion

Developmental and social psychologists have proven that our emotional states affect others in the same vicinity. Angry bosses tend to create anxious team members and happy mothers then to have happy families. Have you ever gone into a meeting feeling good, but when you saw your boss upset about some client feedback, for instance, you suddenly found yourself less happy? Or maybe one day you felt frustrated about your work progress, then met your sister for lunch who had great news to share and soonthereafter, you felt better? While we’ve all had such experiences with people in close contact, research shows that we’re even affected by people farther away. Neurologist Nick Christakis’ findings show that we’re emotionally affected by others in our social networks up to three levels away — friends of friends of friends. If this is true, we’re emotionally affected by people we don’t even know, let alone live and work with every day.

You might conclude that this research supports the bad apple theory. If people’s emotions are contagious and one or a few people on a team are frustrated, angry or unproductive, everyone else will be, too. That sounds plausible, yet here’s the nuance: context.


Research conducted by an entire slew of psychologists, a few being Stanley MilgramElaine Hatfield and Phil Zimbardo shows that people considered “good” do “bad” things amidst specific contexts. In fact they concluded, as have our ancients, that people are both good and bad. Obedience, the fear of being excluded or punished propels people to do things that go against their own morals. We even have a famous saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” which is a perfect reminder that we each behave differently in different situations — and generally think it’s clever to do so. This perspective and the research findings inform us that it’s the context that brings out one aspect of us or another. As a result, it’s not the “bad” people we must remove, rather the situations that bring out their worst behavior.

How Leaders Use the Bad Apple Theory

Many, if not most, leaders and quite frankly all of us apply the bad apple theory through criticisms, judgments and blame. We look at individuals or groups of people as “bad” or creating bad results, regardless of the situation. Here are some examples:

    1. VW engineers were found to imbed software tools that tricked US emissions testing. Why? To help the company meet their sales metrics. While they’re not bad people, their actions within an impossible push to grow sales fueled immoral behavior detrimental to others. Had they not had the sales metrics to meet, would they have behaved the same way? What if they were told to design the best/safest car with no negative repercussions regarding high or low sales? In the end, the CEO and engineers were fired. Does that change the context of impossible sales metrics?
    2. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer is blamed for the company’s failed turnaround. While she had the top job, was she alone in creating results? What about the long line of short-lived CEOs who hd the job before her, were they all not good either? Is there an issue with the hiring process for that position, rather tan the individual people themselves? What about the competitive landscape, her financial reward structure, the beleaguered employee set exhausted by high CEO turnover?
    3. The current US presidential election process is an entire panoply of blaming the candidates for their behavior, while their behavior is a function of the context in which they work — the contexts we’ve collectively designed together. Some blame Hillary Clinton for not doing more for women and children or not being more feminine herself, while it’s quite likely that those behaviors wouldn’t get her the position she’s in right now. Is she a bad person or is she doing what’s rewarded within the US political context? Others blame Donald Trump for being aggressive and vile. Is he a bad person or is he expressing what others in his world dare not express?

These examples are not to say that we need not take responsibility for our behavior and how we respond to contexts. Rather, to show that blaming individuals and removing them does not solve problems.

Change Contexts, Not People

If the research is true — and it looks that way with the poor results we get when blaming and getting rid of people, then it’s the context, not the people. Time, energy and effort is better spent on designing and nurturing positive contexts such as collaborative team cultures in organizational settings. In doing so, we can decide which behavior create the best results and reward them, reinforcing positive actions and outcomes. Here are a couple of examples where people look at context and generate great results:

    1. According to findings outlined by surgeon Atul Gawande, doctors are taught to be independent, risk-taking and self-sufficient. Yet within the context of those ways of being, lots of mistakes happen. When changing the context even slightly with a checklist before/after surgeries, the outcomes shift enormously. In an experiment where the checklists were used, there were 35% fewer surgical complications and 47% fewer patient deaths. The doctors and nurses were the same, yet working within the context of a checklist that encouraged humility and team work, they produced very different results.
    2. The Zappos company includes a CEO and entire employee set focused on team culture. By doing so, they design the most functional behaviors into the culture and reward them, resulting in happy employees, customers and venture capitalists alike. While the media make it seem it’s the CEO’s sole success, he’s been able to achieve the results within the context of how he thought/thinks, who he met and collaborated with and how they all made it work.


Lots of people apply the bad apply theory without realizing that it doesn’t work. To solve problems, a focus on changing the context makes all the difference.


[Image by Freepik]