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The Bad Apple Problem

Updated: Jan 24

We all know there is much wisdom about whom you keep company with and making sure that the people you choose to spend time with are the right kinds of people.

Some of the things people say about friends and associates I find to be true to varying degrees: that you become like the three people you most commonly hang out with (probably, I guess); that if you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room (depends?), and one of my favourites, and one which I have found to be absolutely true, one rotten apple ruins the whole barrel.

I have been in friend groups, workplaces, networks and organisations, whether large or small, where it has been true that you can have an organisation, a network, a family, indeed any kind of collective involving humans, which is well functioning, harmonious, productive and supportive only until that rotten apple comes along that starts to slowly contaminate all the rest.

This is going to be a relatively short post because there is not that much to say other than this: the bad apple situation is very challenging.

Often, and in most cases, statistics and likelihoods will indicate that as groups get larger, we will inevitably start to have more of a chance of a bad apple making its way in. It seems that there is little we can do to avoid this.

One of the solutions is to have good gatekeepers who are trained in spotting people who don't want to genuinely support and uplift, who have tendencies of competitiveness and malice, qualities and traits that would indicate they are damaging to the group.

But having strict gatekeepers is often (rightly) frowned upon because it is deemed as cliquey or elitist and, inevitably the nice groups with good apples want to be inclusive, which can be to their detriment.

The thing with bad apples though is they can only contaminate those who are lacking certain boundaries, who are willing to be led, or are too nice and would hear gossip or are not alert enough to spot the signs of secret sabotage, jealousy, seething malice or divisiveness.

If we had a group of good apples trained to reject the contaminated seeds planted by the bad apple we wouldn't have the slow rot set in, which it sadly so often does.

The bad apple has a very dangerous and corrosive power when the group does not set strong enough boundaries, or where there are existing fault lines to be exploited. It then can allow itself to be lured into the value systems and agenda of the bad apple which is to divide and conquer, to rile people up, to feed into their insecurities or to leverage them, using power plays, cliques, carrots and sticks to make sure a chess game is played with everyone a pawn .... except for one person.

In large groups, the solution lies in creating a culture of integrity, openness, and inclusivity and also empowering people to stand up to a covert bully and encouraging them to spot these people through their divisive and corrosive behaviour - things like persistent gossiping, bullying or mean behaviour, lying, passive aggression and minimisation of others, blame shifting etc. And also to instil an environment where people are able to communicate their concerns, be assertive and not feel they need to 'join in' via participation of the toxic culture the bad apple is slowly bringing about as the new normal.

There is also a lot of training and education that needs to be done about the way in which sociopaths and narcissists operate and how they secretly act in ways which make themselves appear the victim.

This is vital because these bad apples use their fake victimhood very often as their shield.

The influencers and people that hold the power position in such dynamics, whether in a family or friend group, need to be able to understand really what is going on and that requires a high level of emotional intelligence and self-awareness. This is not easy and this is what makes bad apples so persistent and difficult to deal with.

In our smaller groups and day-to-day relationships, it is thankfully much easier to protect ourselves from the bad apple because we have more control over who we interact with as compared to a professional setting.

And prevention is better than cure when dealing with a bad apple, as dealing with the aftermath of such a person, once they have perpetrated their devious acts, is sometimes impossible and the harm caused is irreparable to group trust and dynamics.

Due to the severity of the bad apple problem, I have learned that when making friends or forming relationships to now go one step beyond the person - to sense check, not just whether they are a good person with honesty and integrity, morals and values, but to also see who they themselves choose as their confidant, lover, best friend or trusted advisor - to do a little glance at who influences them and who are they close to.

A bad apple, even one step removed, can cause all manner of chaos (and most likely will) down the line, in your life. This can be slightly alleviated if the person in your life has strong boundaries and is at least aware of the problem - but it does still then raise the question of, if they are aware, why is this bad apple still holding a position of significant importance in their world?

This is a very sneaky but ticking time bomb in so many relationships - whether platonic or romantic. And one we don't really think about - because let's face it, most of us don't even scrutinise our own relationships that closely, let alone undertake these other additional levels of due diligence.

To sum up - it's not just about who you love and who's important to you - it's who they love and who is important to them. And if there is a bad apple around, the more steps, and people, removed they are from you, the better.

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