Social exclusion for bad apples

So far, we have learned

  1. The bad apple effect – a single, toxic team member can create group-wide dysfunction
  2. Emotions are contagious – when someone else experiences an emotion, mirror neurons light up the exact same areas of our brain as if we were experiencing that emotion ourselves.
  3. Social contracts are a nice way of establishing a set of desired group norms, and can provide a “container” for the team to manage its own conflict, including defective behaviour.

In this post, the forth in the Agile Team series, we look into techniques for working with people who continually act out of sync with the team culture and norms. In particular, we investigate how social exclusion can be used as a highly effective deterrent of bad behaviour.

The bad apple syndrome is a well-known phenomenon and there is a considerable body of evidence[i] proving that often group members strive to contribute at or slightly above the level of the person making the lowest contribution in the group – otherwise known as the Minimal Reciprocity Rule.

The key questions to conclude the Agile Team series are

  1. Why do some people consistently behave this way?
  2. What can be done about it?

To answer the first question – why – let’s look at some basic primal human motivation.

We all have conflicting needs and at times our personal welfare and the collective welfare of the group are in conflict. Sometimes, uncooperative behaviour is more immediately and personally rewarding than cooperative behaviour. In particular, when there is a culture of bad behaviour, we often protect ourselves first, and then look to the needs of the group.

This is completely logical; the limbic system (a primal part of the brain) quickly analyses each social situation as a potential threat or reward. If it is a threat the brain perceives, then the core flight or fight responses kick in and we go into “survival” mode. As a matter of fact, recent research suggests that these responses are very similar to ones that drive humans to food and away from predators. Naturally, if we sense a situation that doesn’t feel safe then we look after ourselves first. Of course there is a stark paradox here; by doing this we add to the culture of bad behaviour, thereby creating (and often justifying) more “bad” behaviour and a vicous cycle ensures. In contrast, the more cooperative others in the group are, the more cooperative we tend to be.


The challenge is nicely summarised in a fascinating article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology: “social dilemmas, by definition, present clear and often strong incentives to act uncooperatively. “. The article goes on to say “There appears to be a non-trivial fraction of the population that will nearly always defect. It would be surprising then if most groups did not include at least a few uncooperative ‘bad apples’.”

So in summary, there are strong incentives to revert to individualistic behaviour, a reasonable likelihood of there being a few “bad apples” in the group, and “bad” group behaviour initiates a vicious, self-reinforcing behavioural cycle.  I am sure we all have an occurrence of this etched in our minds – where we looked after ourselves first as there was little inspiration to work for the greater good of the group.

So what can we do about this? What do we do when working with a team that isn’t really working, primarily due to the poor behaviour of a few key people? And agile coaches, what can we give the team in order for them to resolve this situation themselves? And how do we avoid reverting to old, unsuccessful traditional management approaches?

My experience as an agile coach has taught me the following:

  1. Start with a focus on core values. However there is a catch here – values are not something written down in a document or put on a plaque on the wall. They are something that must be lived and demonstrated as behaviours by us all, starting with you.
  2. As a team, we need to have the desire to be better. If we don’t want to make a better working environment, then we won’t.
  3. We need to design what a safe, enjoyable and stimulating work environment feels like. We can’t expect it to just happen, as if by magic. Establishing a set of group norms, or a social contract, really helps.
  4. We need to be brave and open enough to confront one another when we perceive another team member’s behaviour as inconsistent with our agreed norms.

All of these must occur – that is, one of these on their own is seldom enough.  For example, there is little point in having a social contract if nobody is prepared to call out inconsistent behaviour.

However, I have always felt there was something else missing in my tool kit – as if the above wasn’t quite enough.  A Behaviour Psychologist I discussed this with raised something interesting – the ABC of human behaviour:

  1. Antecedents – systems and functions that try to guide the desired behaviour
  2. Behaviour – the behaviour itself
  3. Consequences – what happens if the behaviour isn’t acceptable.

The belief is that we can’t change a person, but we can influence the way they behave by shaping the environment they function within. That makes sense to me – managing the system in which the person functions, but the idea of “consequences” really made me squirm. It made we think of the untold hours I spent in the principal’s office at school,  or the horrible work environments I had worked in, full of awkward, problematic managers who unwittingly or dispassionately destroyed any semblance of culture, creativity or engagement.


I find parenting is a great way to learn good coaching skills. The easy thing to do as a parent is to offer brutal consequences for unacceptable behaviour. These have traditionally come in the form of smacking, yelling and in extreme cases the use of a weapon against the child (the cane, the strap). Every ounce of me rejects this notion as barbaric, completely ineffective and often counter-productive, teaching children that violence is acceptable. It’s not.


Our family approach is based on social exclusion. “We don’t hit each other in our family. You are going into time out to think about your behaviour and what you are going to do to change it.” By using this approach we are:

  1. rejecting them from the social group temporarily
  2. targeting the behaviour, not the person
  3. providing them an opportunity to take ownership of their behaviour.

It was uncanny how often I found myself saying “if only we could use this approach at work!”. Eventually, I found the time to research social exclusion as a workplace tool.

time out for adults

My research led me to an experiment conducted by Kerr, Rumble et al. They wanted to know whether social exclusion could prevent the viscous cycle of bad apple behavioural influence, and if so, under what conditions. They created two conditions for the experiment:

  1. Low Exclusion Threat-condition – where people operated with anonymity (no transparency) and there was no social sanctioning of any defectors (no courage, no respect, no commitment).
  2. High Exclusion Threat-condition, where their decisions were shared with the rest of the group transparently and where participants were vulnerable to exclusion by others in the group.

Interestingly, transparency alone was not sufficient to alter cooperative behaviour. Only when there was both transparency and consequences (social exclusion) did members change their behaviour.

The experiment was a game called “The Investment Game.”  Groups consisted of 5 players, and each had $5 which they had to allocate (in whole dollars) between two accounts, a Personal Account and a Group Account.  Contributions to their Personal Account were kept personally. For example, if you put all $5 into your personal account then you got $5. For the Group Account, the sum of all contributions were doubled, and then divided equally between the five members of the group. So if everyone put all $5 into the Group Account then they would each get $10 back – they would all better off they all put their money into the Group Account.

Groups were randomly shown a table of the choices of previous groups, with bad apples simulated by maximum defection – that is, bad apples had put all their money into their own personal account and nothing towards the group. The table shown to the groups indicated whether 0, 1, 2 or 3 members had allocated $0 to the Group Account. The results are fascinating:

number bad apples

From this study, we can see that a single ‘bad apple’ was enough to materially reduce levels of cooperation if there are few if any social costs for an act of defection (the blue Low Threat line). In other words, if conditions prevent the group from identifying who may be defecting and/or group members have no way of punishing defectors, cost-free defection is a possibility. Under such conditions, one bad apple can indeed spoil the barrel.

However, the results of the experiment also show that the relationship between the number of defecting bad apples and one’s own cooperation is rather different when both transparency and the threat of social exclusion are present.  When both are present, it took a majority of bad apples to produce a detectable decline in cooperation.

If following the example of a single or a pair of bad apples meant risking social exclusion, the temptation to follow that example was resisted. It was only when a majority prevailed that others crumbled to the temptation. Thus, they concluded that social exclusion can be an effective means of social control.


So this helped me immensely. It turns out social exclusion IS an effective tool to preventing and addressing bad behaviour.  Interestingly, another study I found helped me understand why.

Data gathered from MRI scans, suggests that social exclusion can result in a neural impulse similar and as powerful as physical pain.

“When people felt excluded we saw activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex – the neural region involved in the distressing component, or what is sometimes referred to as the ‘suffering’ component of pain. Those people who felt the most rejected had the highest levels of activity in this region – Naomi Eisenberger, Social Neuroscience researcher, UCLA. Literally, social exclusion is broadly equivalent to physical pain.

Literally, social exclusion triggers the same parts of the brain as physical pain.

social pain

So, how can we use this information as agile coaches?

  1. Leadership – to me this is the first and foremost. Don’t expect others to behave in a positive manner if you can’t behave this way yourself. As my old friend Dave Acraman once said to me “when your kids are misbehaving, the first person to look at is yourself”.
  1. Give them the authority, autonomy and guidelines to self-manage and take ownership of their group behaviour. How would they like it to be? What would make them really powerful as a team? Help them write it down, discuss it, demonstrate it, notice it, reward it. A social contract is a good way of doing this, but make sure it is prominent (perhaps in the team area, or close to their Scrum board) and discussed regularly (retrospectives are a good place for this!)
  1. Teach and guide them to have the courage to detect unacceptable behaviour and be transparent about it. Sometimes an agreed approach can help the less confident of those in the team. I have used the NVC approach of “when you do X, it makes me feel like Y…”
  1. Help them learn how to have “consequences” for uncooperative behaviour via social exclusion. This may be as simple as “in our team we don’t treat other people like that” or a team member coaching a colleague on how to approach a situation differently.


I hope you have found the Agile Team series helpful. As always, your feedback is welcome.

Sorry it took my so long to complete this final post!


[i] Bad Apple Syndrome

  • Bornstein, G., & Ben-Yossef, M. (1994). Cooperation in intergroup and single-group social dilemmas. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 30, 52–67.
  • Braver, S. R., & Barnett, B. (1974). Perception of opponent’s motives and cooperation in a mixed-motive game. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 18, 686–699.
  • Dawes, R. M., McTavish, J., & Shaklee, H. (1977). Behavior, communication, and assumptions about other people’s behavior in a commons dilemma situation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 1–11.
  • Komorita, S. S., Parks, C. D., & Hulbert, L. G. (1992). Reciprocity and the induction of cooperation in social dilemmas. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 607–617.
  • Messick, D. M., Wilke, H., Brewer, M. B., Kramer, R. M., Zemke, P. E., & Lui, L. (1983). Individual adaptations and structural change as solutions to social dilemmas. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 294–309.
  • Schroeder, D. A., Jensen, T. D., Reed, A. J., Sullivan, D. K., & Schwab, M. (1983). The actions of others as determinants of behavior in social trap situations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 522–539.
  • Yamagishi, T. (1986). The provision of a sanctioning system as a public good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 110–116.


  1. Fascinating

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