Is One Bad Apple Too Many?

Is One Bad Apple Too Many?

We all know the old saw about one bad apple being enough to spoil the whole bunch. Turns out it’s true in the management context, too. Over the weekend I caught up on some podcasts I’d been meaning to listen to and, although none of them were really work-related, one, called “Ruining it for the Rest of Us” on This American Life, told the story of some research on the effect a single team member who is a “bad apple” can have on the rest of the team.

Dr. Will Felps, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, wanted to know what effect one person could have on group productivity, so he set up an experiment to compare team performance between teams with and without a bad apple. An undercover actor joined several teams of three college undergraduates on a project that they believed involved collaborating to make management decisions. The team which achieved the best outcome was to receive a cash reward, providing pretty much the same incentive that most of us have when we come to work every day. Unbeknownst to the other team members, the actor’s role was to play the part of either a “jerk” (someone who attacks or insults others, belittling their ideas without offering any of his own), a slacker who does little or nothing to help, or a depressive pessimist. The various groups work efforts were videotaped, and the results were amazing in light of conventional wisdom and the existing research showing that individuals tend to conform to group behavior and that group dynamics are so powerful that they tend to dominate individuals, rather than the other way around.

It turned out that the groups with the bad apple invariably performed worse than the groups without bad apples, regardless of the talents and skills of the other members of the group – typically thirty to forty percent worse. The members of these groups also tended to argue and fight, and withhold relevant information more, than the members of the other groups. And the other members of the group even began to take on the same characteristics the bad apple was displaying. The report of the study titled “How, When, and Why Bad Apples Spoil the Barrel: Negative Group Members and Dysfunctional Groups” is published in Research in Organizational Behavior, Volume 27, 181–230, which I found using Google Scholar here.

So what does this have to do with practicing law? A lot, it turns out. The best predictor for the success of any group effort is not the attitude and abilities of the best, or even the average, team member. It’s those of the worst team member. Which should lead you to be asking who’s on your team and whether it’s time for some new teammates. If you have one of these people in your office, chances are that you could really turn things around for everyone and greatly boost firm productivity simply by eliminating this one bad apple.