February 5, 2020 | Mark Paradies

Normalization of Deviation: Can One Bad Apple Spoil the Whole Bunch?

Does Bad Behavior Spread?

I read an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review titled:

“How One Bad Employee Can Corrupt a Whole Team”

It was research on how one dishonest financial advisor can corrupt his or her peers. The conclusion? One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch.

Normalization of Deviation

This made me think about Normalization of Deviation and my experience in the Nuclear Navy.

What is Normalization of Deviation (or Deviance)? In an interview, Diane Vaughan, Sociology Professor from Ohio State University, said:

Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety.

Normalization of Deviation Story

I was a Navy Nuke. On my second ship, I experienced Normalization of Deviation first hand. One of the Division Officer (a Lieutenant – hereafter abbreviated as LT) had a bad attitude. He was very smart but he thought that rules didn’t apply to him or those who worked for him. He frequently broke the rules and got away with it because he was so smart. Soon, those around him (especially those who worked for him) did the same. His folks developed a bad reputation. Think of them as the pirate crew.

His bosses boss knew there was something wrong. He had me (also a Lieutenant) replace the bad LT. What did I do? I started enforcing the rules – no exceptions.

I had a discussion with the senior enlisted leaders (Chiefs and 1st Class Petty Officers) under me. They were glad to hear about the changes and see the rules being enforced. They had felt that under the past leader (the bad LT) they had lost their ability to enforce the rules. They quickly stepped up to help enforce the rules and put things back in order.

In a matter of weeks, things were turned around. With continued good leadership the team went from the worst-performing team to the best.

One bad apple had spoiled the whole bunch BUT getting rid of the bad apple and bringing in a good apple fixed the problem.

End of the Story

You might ask,

“What happened to the bad LT”

Not long after I relieved him, he went to Washington for his “engineers exam.” During the exam, Admiral Rickover personally reviews the candidate’s ability to be the Department Head in charge of running and maintaining a nuclear reactor.

What did Admiral Rickover do to the bad apple LT? He de-nuked him and kicked him out of the Nuclear Navy.

How did Admiral Rickover know he had a bad apple that needed to be discarded? You might say Rickover had a sixth sense. He had his reasons … that I won’t discuss here. Maybe some other time in a different article. (Maybe over a beer at the Global TapRooT® Summit.)

What Does This Story Mean to You?

If you want to have a high-reliability organization, you can’t afford ANY bad apples. Management’s job is to find the bad apples and get rid of them BEFORE they cause Normalization of Deviation.

Learn More About Admiral Rickover & Stopping Normalization of Deviation

Admiral Rickover stopped the Normalization of Deviation with the Normalization of Excellence. Want to read more about this? See the whole series of articles at:


Human Performance
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