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Unethical behaviour hurts firms and also other workers — how can you address a 'bad apple'?

Unethical behaviour hurts firms and also other workers — how can you address a 'bad apple'?


Surveying close to 100 work teams from different industries in China, researchers, including from NUS, have analysed team relationship conflict and team creative performance. 

Cheating, fraud, theft—unethical behaviour hurts firms and also other workers. Resentment brews. When the team’s social climate is gloomy, creative tasks take a hit. But does it make any difference if there’s just one bad apple in a team or different levels of cheating among many team members?

In a paper recently published in the journal Personnel Psychology, Assistant Professor Michael Ke Mai from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School and his co-authors explained how cheating configurations affect team creative performance. Surveying close to 100 work teams from different industries in China, the researchers analysed team relationship conflict and team creative performance. They also investigated how much participants perceived their economic rewards, e.g. salaries or bonuses, to be dependent on teammates’ inputs.

HRO reaches out exclusively to Assistant Professor Mai who summarises the research objectives and results:

Our study analyses the effects of cheating in different organisational structures on creative performance and relationship conflict. The research found that rational control by peers can help alleviate the negative effects of cheating in teams with "bad apple" configurations, but not in teams with fragmented configurations. The study suggests that managers can improve rational control by integrating members' feedback into reward decisions. The research underscores the importance of differentiating forms of unethical behaviour and aligning solutions to address them.

Our primary focus is on how cheating configurations impact team dynamics and creative performance. My co-authors and I distinguish between two types of cheating configurations: bad apple and fragmented. Bad apple configurations involve one or more team members who cheat, whereas fragmented configurations entail a lack of group cohesion and clear leadership.

We find that bad apple configurations lead to increased relationship conflict and decreased creative performance, whereas fragmented configurations have no significant impact on either.

We also look at how peer monitoring and sanctioning, known as rational control, can mitigate the negative effects of cheating. We found that rational control is effective in bad apple groups, but not in fragmented groups. The study suggests that managers can improve the effectiveness of rational control by soliciting and incorporating members' feedback into reward decisions. This approach allows team members to have a say in the rewards and punishments given to their peers, which increases their sense of ownership and motivation to enforce ethical norms.

More and more, teams are detaching from traditional boss-employee performance evaluation systems and moving toward incorporating feedback from multiple stakeholders to make reward decisions. 

Yet the extent to which such structures have relevance for curbing the negative outcomes of unethical behaviour in teams is largely unknown. 

The study's final focus is on the importance of differentiating forms of unethical behaviour and aligning solutions to address them. The bad apple and fragmented configurations require different approaches to address unethical behaviour. For bad apple configurations, rational control is effective, whereas fragmented configurations require more emphasis on building group cohesion and clear leadership. We suggest that managers should carefully assess their team's configuration to determine the most appropriate solution to address unethical behaviour.

As a follow-up, HRO's Aditi Sharma Kalra speaks to Assistant Professor Mai on what the results mean for the labour community: 

Q What was the most alarming aspect you and your team discovered during this study? 

Previously, cheating in a team was treat equally. We just average the member’s cheating and treat the team as ethical or unethical team. But based on our study, it is important to note that the impacts of cheating in different group configurations and how tailored solutions can address unethical behaviour. The study's findings suggest that managers can improve team dynamics and performance by carefully assessing their team's configuration and implementing appropriate solutions to address unethical behaviour.

Q How would you frame these results in the context of Southeast Asian culture, where we are competitive even in teams?

In Southeast Asia, most firms still adopt a traditional boss-employee performance evaluation system. In fact, many firms around the world have moved toward incorporating feedback from multiple stakeholders to make reward decisions. For example, at Morning Star, a food processing company, peer assessments are a crucial piece of the yearly self-assessments reviewed by compensation committees. At 10Pines, a software firm, members set each other’s salaries through “rates meetings”. Our study adds important evidence regarding the benefits of this emerging practice: when members of a team have an elevated sense that their rewards are dependent on the recommendations of their teammates, the harmful effect of bad apples on relationship conflict and creative performance is mitigated.

Q Introducing more peer assessment is a good way to tackle the 'bad apple' phenomenon. Could you share more ways that you believe will help managers build stronger, more cohesive teams?

There are many ways managers can try to help build a strong and cohesive team. For example, they can start by defining a clear purpose and goals: A team with a clear sense of purpose and goals is more likely to be cohesive and productive.

Managers can help by providing a clear vision and direction for the team and regularly reminding team members of their goals. They can also encourage open communication in the team: Communication is critical for building trust and fostering a sense of teamwork. Managers can encourage open communication by creating a safe and supportive environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas.

It is important to encourage the team collaboration. Managers can facilitate this by creating opportunities for team members to work together on projects and initiatives. Managers can recognise and appreciate contributions on a timely base, because this can help build morale and strengthen relationships. They can do so by showing appreciation through verbal recognition, rewards, or other forms of recognition. Sometimes, introducing an external competitor can also unite the team.

After all, as Andrew Carnegie said: "Teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results, especially when facing an external threat."

ALSO READ: Case study: With a workforce 1,000+ strong, here's why SHAREit is no longer a "garage startup"


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