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Does One Bad Apple Spoil the Team?

It’s true about apples – but what about teams?  Does one bad apple really spoil the lot?

Dr. Will Felps, professor at UNSW would say unequivocally “YES” based on his research on group dynamics and group performance: How, When, and Why Bad Apples Spoil the Barrel*.

His study planted one person, an “undercover actor,” into 4 person college-level teams assigned a task. The study examined the effects of three disruptive behaviors on team performance. The actor followed one of three scripts – at various times playing the part of:

The Jerk – This person is insulting to others and undermines through criticism. When playing this role, the undercover “team member” does not offer any positive options, only toxic comments.

The Slacker – Both verbally and non-verbally, the slacker is clear that they have no desire to be there and have little intention of contributing.

The Depressive/ Pessimist – Makes it clear that they do not want to be there, do not want to do the task, and openly doubts the value of the task or the group’s ability to successfully complete the task.

While the roles were different, the results were the same. Having a bad apple on a team negatively impacted the team’s performance by 30 to 40%.  As if that is not concerning enough, others on the team began to take on the “bad apple” behavior and persona. When a jerk was on the team, insults began to fly from everyone. When there was a slacker, soon others began to disengage. With a depressive/pessimist on the team – others became negative as well.

This American Life, a Public Radio International program, interviewed Dr. Felps about the study – and the 14-minute audio is worth your time if you are either leading or part of a team. You can listen to it here.

What’s a group to do if they are burdened with a Bad Apple?  Interestingly, Dr. Phelps found one group that was an exception. In this group, the leader did something different and as a result, team performance did not decline.

“There was just one guy who was a particularly good leader. And what he would do is he would ask questions. And he would engage all the team members and defuse conflicts. And I found out later that he is actually the son of a diplomat. So his father, I guess, is a diplomat from some South American country. And he had this amazing diplomatic ability to defuse the conflict that normally would emerge when this actor, Nick, would display all this real jerk behavior.”

Dr. Felps was so intrigued by this outcome that he is studying it further. So while not validated by research (yet), it appears that asking questions may be the answer to disruptive team behavior.

It makes perfect sense to me. In my work with leaders, we teach them to do these things when their team begins to exhibit dysfunctional team behavior:

Model the way. Ensure that you are exhibiting the behavior you want from the team.

Name it. Take time from the task to reflect the team what you are observing, in a neutral, non-judgmental way. For example, you might say:

  • “It seems that we’ve lost our energy on this task.”
  • “Can we take a time out? We seem to be off task.”

Ask Good Questions. This is the behavior Dr. Felps observed – a leader asking good questions about what is happening. Questions engage others, cause the group to pause and consider and open up thinking. For example, you might ask:

  • “What does everyone think about this?”
  • “What makes you feel that way?”
  • “Are you certain that is accurate?”
  • “What assumptions are we making?”

Help the Group Refocus. Once you’ve opened the discussion, listened, and gotten to the issue, leaders can help the group get back on task. This is an engagement step – not a command step, so the questions might look like this:

  • “What can we do to resolve this?”
  • “What do we prefer to happen?”
  • “What specifically does each one of us need to do?”

Questions, when open, curious and non-judgmental, have an amazing way of causing people to pause, to think, and to consider other options in front of them. Questions invite people into exploration and solution-finding.

Many leaders feel they must have all the answers. Instead, it may be that they just need to ask really good questions.


*Citation: Felps, W., Mitchell, T. R., & Byington, E. 2006. How, when, and why bad apples spoil the barrel: Negative group members and dysfunctional groups. Research in Organizational Behavior, Volume 27: 181–230.

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