(First half of this review here.)
“A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.” (I Cor 5:6)
“A rotten apple injures its neighbors.” (Chaucer)
In his excellent book Robert Sutton argues that a “one asshole rule” can complement the no asshole rule (pp 84-87), based on studies of norm deviance. “Decades of research on how human groups react to ‘deviant’ members implies that having one or two assholes around may be better than having none at all…one conspicuous rule-breaker can spur others to do the right thing” (p 84). For instance, while people are less likely to litter on a clean surface than a messy one, they are even less likely to litter on a surface with a single piece of garbage than on one with no garbage at all (pp 85-86). The norm violation sticks out like a sore thumb and reinforces good behavior. “A token asshole reminds everyone how not to behave” (p 86).
Or at least in theory. In a recent blogpost Sutton second-guesses himself based on an article written by William Felps and Terrance Mitchell:
“Their analysis of 20 published studies suggests that ‘one bad apple’ is enough to push a group into a downward spiral, as a Science Daily put it,
‘They found that a single “toxic” or negative team member can be the catalyst for downward spirals in organizations. In a follow-up study, the researchers found the vast majority of the people they surveyed could identify at least one “bad apple” that had produced organizational dysfunction.’
Sutton notes, however, that
“It seems that the authors focused on small groups, where bad apples are especially like to have powerful effects. So perhaps a bad apple in a bigger group might still help crystallize ‘no-asshole’ rather than ‘pro-asshole’ norms. And another factor might have to do with the power of the ‘bad apple,’ so if the nasty person widely seen as behaving badly and plays a marginal role in the group, then perhaps they do less damage.”
So in other words, a token asshole in a large group with little power loses contaminating potency, but in a smaller group with more power is probably going to poison the group.
Sutton’s revised approach squares with my own perception, though I suspect that size of the group is the stronger determining factor. But I think there’s a third factor too. Some people are just more asshole-prone than others. I’ve known people whose personalities shift amazingly accordingly to the company they’re in: sunny and positive when around like people, nasty and negative as soon as an asshole walks in the room. They seem to be just looking for an excuse to lash out and cause trouble, and one asshole is all it takes to trigger their appetites for discord. (Maybe their jobs aren’t exciting enough as is.)
I’d be inclined to say that after the size of the group, malleable (asshole-prone) personalities become a greater factor than the power of the asshole per se. Aside from managers and supervisors, lone assholes have only as much power as their colleagues give them.
The one asshole rule, as Sutton notes, is thus a double-edged sword. A rotten apple can work wonders if carefully monitored in a large enough barrel, and if the other apples are exceptionally fresh and healthy. But under less than ideal conditions, we should probably listen to Paul and Chaucer, and assume that the tiniest bit of rot will poison the mass.