Does your team have a bad apple?

A fascinating recent study has shown that a single, toxic team member can create group team wide dysfunction and breakdown.

We have all worked in teams where there is one “difficult” person.  They seem to take up a disproportionate amount of the teams time and energy. Conversations with them feel “heavy” and they tend to sap your energy. There are a number of manifestations of this phenomenon, from the passive-aggressive group eroder, the blunt/rude dominant, the controller, the slacker, the anti-establishment guy, the divide-and-conquer schemer, the arrogant fat head… I am sure some of these will be familiar.

So, if we sometimes have to work with this sort of person, what impact does this have on us as a team?

This typically isn’t really ever measured or understood. Most teams just put up with the difficult person, citing personality eccentricities, and just tolerate them (often with a sigh or a roll of the eyes).  Often teams will look to someone more senior in the organisation to deal with the difficult person.

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Will Felps, Associate Professor of Organization & Personnel Management at Rotterdam School of Management wrote a fascinating paper titled “How, When, And Why Bad Apples Spoil The Barrel: Negative Group Members And Dysfunctional Groups“.  The paper discusses how, when, and why the behaviours of one negative group member can have powerful, detrimental influence on an entire team.  In other words, how one bad apple can ruin the entire group. The findings are utterly fascinating.

Felps conducted a social experiment. He took groups of four college students and arranged them into teams. Each team had to compete against the other to solve some management problems. Unbeknown to them however, Felps planted an actor in each team, designed to feign one of the three personality types Felps suspected caused major issues:

  1. The Depressive Pessimist – will complain that the task that they’re doing isn’t enjoyable, and make statements doubting the group’s ability to succeed.
  2. The Jerk – will say that other people’s ideas are not adequate, but will offer no alternatives himself. He’ll say “you guys need to listen to the expert: me.”
  3. The Slacker – will say “whatever”, and “I really don’t care.”

Here is what he found.

Most research to date had assumed that groups had the ability to overcome bad apples. It assumed the power of the group would override the bad apple and force them to change their behaviour. But, Felps findings proved otherwise.

Invariably, groups that had the bad apple would perform worse. Bad apples had a significant impact on the group, with these groups performing 30 to 40 % worse than groups without a bad apple in them.  The ability to get along, share work and collaborate significantly dropped in groups with a bad apple.

That’s no surprise right? We have all worked in these groups and would expect productivity to be lower. But here’s the rub.

In groups with a bad apple, other team members begin to take on the bad apple’s characteristics. When the confederate acted out one of the three personalities, the other team members acted the same way.  When the bad apple was a jerk, other team members would begin acting like a jerk. When he was a slacker, they began to slack, too.

Even worse, they didn’t just act this way to him. They acted this way towards all other team members. In other words, one persons’ bad behaviour has a ripple on effect propagating that type of behaviour throughout the team.

This is an immensely important discovery. One bad apple can cause rot in the entire cart by altering the behaviour of everyone.

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Interesting, there was one exception in the experiment. One group performed very well, despite having a bad apple (confederate). The difference? This group had a leader with strong skills in diffusing conflict.

Remind you of one of the key roles in Scrum?

Have a listen to this recording from the “This American Life” show. It’s an absorbing interview with Felps.

We simply cannot tolerate this sort of behaviour. It ruins entire teams which in turns returns entire products. Don’t tolerate it. Ultimately, there are only three options:

  1. Nothing – live with it. Clearly not a good option.
  2. Preventative action – as a team define an agreement on what sorts of behaviours would make our team powerful and what we can count on from each other. We create a team artefact, often called a Social Contract to capture this. I will discuss this more in post three in this series.  If behaviour slips off track then we can confront them about the behaviour – what Felps’ called “motivational interventions”.
  3. Reject them out of the team, for the sake of the Team. Is this hard? Yes – it is very difficult but nobody said this way easy.  We know values and behaviours impact teams and as post two in this series will show, negative emotions kills teams.

intervention

Motivational interventions are acts of teammates that attempts to change negative behaviour via influence. He shows how this is a common and effective approach to deal with The Slacker and The Jerk, but is not so successful on the Depressive Pessimist.  Team members tend not have the techniques required to resolve a teammate’s negative moods, and so tend to simply reject them rather than attempt to motivate them.

Note – a motivation intervention or rejection requires that teammates have some power and skills. A good social contract and a good facilitating Scrum Master can help with this.

bad apple flow

Next post, I will look into an incredible discovers in the world of social psychology – mirror neurons. These incredible little things make us experience other people’s emotions as if they were our own.

Perhaps this can go some way to explaining Felps’ findings.

bad apple

 

 

Comments

  1. Interesting article, Edwin.

    Now, what would you do when the rotten apple is the General Manager, and not the team?

    I recently worked for a company; it was a new one, and all the team members were very excited and worked with passion, to bring the best to the new project. The company (President & CEO), still needed a person, not to run the company, since it was a small one, but rather for financial purposes, to calculate the costs, and potential revenue in the next 5 years.
    The 1st mistake the company made was to hire this new GM, based on not choosing the most qualified one, with better skills, experience and “empathy”, but rather to hire the cheapest one for the company. The outcome was terrible…
    This new GM had most of the characteristics you mention in your article: rude dominant, the divide-and-conquer schemer, passive-aggressive personality, as well as lack of respect for other Managers, their professional opinions, etc.

    The outcome: The team that was happy every day, turned into an unhappy group, seeking for opportunities in other companies. The top decission makers don´t listen (or don´t want to listen), therefore, the team feels frustrated, and the number of resignations the company have, will not compensate the expenses the company invested in bringing in all of them. So far, 8 staff out of 12, are considering resigning soon.

    What is your solution to this? How can we avoid sacrificing a lot of talented people, for just keeping one jerk, who pretends to run a company, but what this person is really doing, is putting everything upside down and ruining the project???

    Just FYI, this General Manager didnt´want to work for our company. The acceptance of the job is for other purposes (like getting another position promised by the President of the company, in ohter country).

    Thanks again, great post

    Regards,

    Max

    • Edwin Dando says:

      Hey Max,

      sorry for the slow reply. I have had some spambots sending through lots of stuff and I must have lost the email about your comment in the mix.

      Max the principle I tend to reach for in the most challenged of situations is transparency. Scrum has three legs: transparency, inspection and adaption. The first leg is vital as the others depend on it to make informed decisions (Evidence Based Management), therefore I would lean towards total transparency with your GM. Have you approached him to discuss the issues? Some of the non-violent communication tools can be useful – phrasing it as “when you do , I feel like ” – it isnt saying “you do this to me” aka cause and effect, but just letting the person know the implications of their actions.

      I would start somewhere like this. Be honest, be open and be respectful, but expect that back as organisational values. Hold the bar high and lead with these as demonstrable behaviors and if your GM doesn’t adjust then perhaps you might want to re-evaluate whether you wish to continue to pour energy into somewhere where the chances of success are low. I am not saying quit your job – I am saying experiment, observe, learn, adjust.

      Keep me in the loop how you get on. I am curious!

  2. Interesting topic! The bad apple will have a bigger impact in a smaller group. 1 in a group of 4 is sizable 25%. Extrapolate that in a range between 1 in 2 to 1 in 10 and the impact of the bad apple slowly diminishes. Every apple may have some badness and goodness. Determining the degree may not be as easy.

Trackbacks

  1. Does your team have a bad apple?…

  2. [...] Bad apples – the impact one bad apple can have on an entire team [...]

  3. [...] One way is to help the team be mindful of how their own behaviour impacts others in the team.  If a team member is behaving negatively, then not only will the other team members behave negatively  back, they will take on that behaviour towards other team members also. As per my previous post, one bad apple can upset the entire cart. [...]

  4. […] post one and two in this series, we discovered how emotions and behaviours are contagious and can have a […]

  5. […] to a study by Will Felps, associate professor of organization and personnel management at Rotterdam School of […]

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