How to Fix the Bad Relationships that Affect Team Performance

Topic(s): conflict, performance, teams
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: When Do Bad Apples Not Spoil the Barrel? Negative Relationships in Teams, Team Performance, and Buffering Mechanisms
Authors: J.P. de Jong, P.L. Curseu, and R.T.A.J. Leenders 
Reviewed by: Amber Davidson

Nearly all companies and organizations use teams to get work done, but can bad relationships be preventing that from happening? As common as teamwork is, the dynamics that make a team actually work are often overlooked. Whether the team is temporarily thrown together or a permanent fixture, how the individuals get along is an essential factor in how well the team performs. All people have their differences, and frequently this can lead to disagreements or harmful relationships among team members.


Bad relationships can be characterized by emotional and behavioral actions that induce distress, anger, and withdrawal. These types of harmful relationships among team members create a divided team, which in turn leads to an overall poorer team performance. A cohesive team will ultimately be more productive than a team that is separated by bad relationships. Bad relationships can never be completely avoided. However, there may be ways to decrease the undesirable effects of bad relationships on team performance. 


The researchers (de Jong, Curseu, & Leenders, 2014) examined three possible methods of negating the effects of bad relationships within a team. The first is called communication density, or how often a team talks with each other and shares harmful or damaging behaviors. If a team actively strives for a comfortable atmosphere where people can connect with the other members, bad relationships should be kept to a minimum. In turn, if there is little communication, bad relationships can continue to grow.

The second method is team member exchange, which is where members exchange feedback, support, and assistance when needed. When team members bounce ideas around and go to each other for help, bad relationships will be neutralized.

The third method is task-interdependence, which is when members of the group must work together to accomplish one task instead of each member having individual tasks. When team members must work together in this fashion, they are succeeding or failing together, which allows little room for bad behaviors. 


The researchers who explored the three buffering ideas found that how frequently people talked and the overall group atmosphere did not play a significant role in neutralizing bad relationships. However, when team members went to each other for advice and support and when members depended on each other to complete a task, bad relationships were found to have a less damaging effect. 


The use of teams in organizations is not going to stop, and it should not, because teams often foster innovative ideas and accomplish tasks that could not be done by a single individual. However, there are drawbacks, such as harmful relationships, which will decrease a team’s cohesiveness and ultimately its performance. Companies should recognize the potential problems caused by bad relationships, and while bad relationships can never be completely avoided, they can be kept to a minimum. This study shows that these bad relationships can be mitigated by using two strategies. First, encourage team members to support each other, and second, design work so that employees need each other to complete tasks. These strategies should help reduce the harm caused by bad relationships, and ensure that teams remain successful.

de Jong, J. P., Curşeu, P. L., & Leenders, R. T. A. J. (2014). When do bad apples not spoil the barrel? Negative relationships in teams, team performance, and buffering mechanisms. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(3), 514-522.