The Powerful Influence of Bad Behavior at Work (and What to Do About it)

Do we need more evidence that it’s simply not worth it to justify the bullying bad behavior of high performing employees just because “they deliver?” (In addition to the research I’ve illustrated in posts here, here and here.)

Research reported in Bnet (now CBS Moneywatch) shows the effect of bullying, disrespectful behavior on the productivity and engagement of the person on the receiving end:

A disrespectful behavior automatically triggers a squirt of cortisol into our brains,” says Paul Meshanko, founder and Managing Partner of Legacy Business Cultures. “Cortisol shuts down the prefrontal cortex and triggers the flight or fight mechanism. So our focus turns inward and we lose the ability to fully engage with other people, to help other people, to be creative and energized and motivated — because our body automatically concentrates on surviving, not thriving. But even when the initial effects finally go away, the process isn’t over. When we think about a particular incident later we receive another squirt of cortisol and feel similar effects. Disrespect is like the anti-gift; instead of the gift that keeps on giving, it’s the ‘gift’ that keeps on taking.”

The disproportionate impact of bad things

And Stanford Professor Bob Sutton (known for his books The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss) highlighted findings from the Bad Is Stronger than Good research in his Work Matters blog:

Essentially, the authors meticulously go through topic after topic — personal relationships, learning, memory, self-image, and numerous others — and show that bad packs a much stronger impact than good. They review a couple hundred diverse studies to make this point, and as they say at the end, the consistency of their findings about the disproportionate impact of bad things (compared to the power of good things) – like negative emotions, hostility, abuse, dysfunctional acts, destructive relationships, serious injuries and accidents, incompetence, and on and on — is depressingly consistent across study after study.

One implication for managers and numerous other influencers in organizations is that, while bringing and breeding great people, and encouraging civility, competence, effort, and other kinds of goodness is an important part of the job, such efforts will be undermined if you aren’t constantly vigilant about eliminating the negative, which includes dealing with people who are bad apples.”

That last statement of Dr. Sutton’s is critically important to note. Similar to University of Vermont research I discussed earlier this week, if you don’t eliminate the negative behavior of bullies and jerks at work, it doesn’t matter how much you do to reinforce the good.

Article Continues Below

Does your workplace tolerate bad behavior? Have you worked in an organization that proactively worked to eliminate such negative behaviors (through coaching, retraining or removal)? Did you see marked improvement in employee attitudes, productivity and engagement?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *