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Bad behavior is contagious: Beware of the company that you keep

The craziness displayed by senior members of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration — and Trump himself — provides a troubling demonstration that bad emotions and social norms are remarkably contagious. It still stuns me, for example, that non-partisan site Politifact has documented that 69% of Trump’s statements are “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire;” while only 16% are “true” or “mostly true.”

There is no need to replay how these and other destructive behaviors have infected, been excused by, and inflicted harm on so many current and past members of Trump’s inner circle. It is impossible to avoid the onslaught of news about the dishonesty, incivility, and backstabbing that plagues almost everyone who enters this bizarre bubble. Of course, lying and nastiness have always been hallmarks of politics in the United States and elsewhere. But I fear that our current crop of top dogs is reaching new lows.

Sure, part of the problem is that people who are prone to such ugliness are more attracted to and more likely to be invited to join teams plagued by bad behavior — birds of a feather do flock together. But this sh-t show offers another crucial lesson for each of us — no matter how good a person you may fancy yourself to be or how noble your past behavior.

Bad behavior is an infectious disease that you catch from other people — and it is mighty hard to resist. I’ve written about numerous new studies that reinforce this old finding. Experiments by Trevor Foulk’s team found that a single exposure to a rude person (e.g., an insulting email from a customer) turns targeted people into “carriers” who then infect others — rudeness spreads much “like the common cold.”

Similarly, studies by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor found that workers who worked with or sat near “toxic” colleagues — who committed theft, fraud, bullying, or sexual harassment — were more prone “catch” such toxic behaviors and get fired. They found when an employee “was in a work group with a high density of toxic employees” there was “a 47 percent increase in the likelihood that person would become toxic.” Minor describes this as a “damaging form of ‘ethical spillover’ ” and “as a sort of virus.”

And, just a few weeks ago at the Harvard Business Review, management professors Stephen Dimmock and William Gerken described their study of “the contagiousness of employee fraud” among financial advisors who cheat customers. These researchers found that advisors “are 37% more likely to commit misconduct if they encounter a new co-worker with a history of misconduct.”

For me, the takeaway here was best captured by the late Bill Lazier, a successful executive who spent the last 20 years of his career teaching business and entrepreneurship at Stanford. Bill visited one of my classes years ago and offered the students some wise advice about the company they keep. As I reported in The No A**hole Rule:

Bill said, when you get a job offer or join a team, take a close look at the people you would work with, not just at whether they are successful or not. He warned that if your future colleagues are self-centered, nasty, narrow-minded, unethical, or overworked and physically ill, there is little chance that you will turn them into better human beings or transform it into a healthy workplace – even in a tiny company.

Bill warned, instead, the chances are that you will start acting like them.

I have been thinking about Bill’s advice, Trump’s inner circle, and research on contagious bad behavior a lot lately. I am working harder to avoid spending time — especially working on joint projects — with people who are rude, arrogant, lazy, selfish, angry, or just no fun — no matter how successful or prestigious they might be. When I fail to follow my own advice, I start thinking and acting like the very people that I despise.

After all, I am only human and few of us are immune to this contagious disease.

The upshot is to take a close look at the people that you work and play with — and at those you’ve been invited to join. If you don’t want to think and act like them, do everything you can to get out or, better yet, to avoid joining them in the first place.

Bob Sutton is a Stanford Professor who studies and writes about leadership, organizational change, and navigating organizational life. Follow me on Twitter @work_matters, and visit my website and posts on LinkedIn. My latest book is The A–hole Survival Guide: How To Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt. Before that, I published Scaling Up Excellence with Huggy Rao. My main focus these days is on working with Huggy Rao to develop strategies and tools that help leaders and teams change their organizations for the better — with a particular focus on organizational friction. Check out my Stanford “FRICTION Podcast” at iTunes or Sticher.

This column first appeared on LinkedIn.

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