Are You The Bad Apple?

Bad AppleVery early in my career I was working on a team project that had fairly broad implications for my firm. There were seven of us in total and we typically convened via phone two to three times a week. We began with a quick roll call, and without fail you would hear this long, drawn-out, exhausted sigh from Wendy. Actually it was more of a hiss, like air escaping slowly from the human balloon that supported Wendy’s exasperated soul. Wendy’s slithery response drained all energy from the living. Did I mention that she was the executive sponsor? Following several painful weeks, the project was eventually euthanized by Wendy’s depressive and pessimistic persona.

In a late December episode of “This American Life”, host Ira Glass interviewed Rotterdam School of Management professor Will Felps regarding the so-called Bad Apple Effect. Felps designed an experiment to test whether one bad apple did, in fact, spoil the bunch. An actor was hired to play the role of either a jerk, slacker or depressive during a highly incented group activity. The group had no idea that a confederate was in their midst and the actor’s behavior was both abhorrent and laughable (listen to the podcast for details).

Conventional wisdom states that groups are powerful forces that can overcome the actions of a sole participant. Felps’ results suggest otherwise:

“Invariably, the groups that had the actor…performed 30 to 40 percent worse. People would argue and fight, not share their relevant information and communicate less when he was any of these types of the bad apples. What was eerily surprising was how the [other] team members would start to take on his characteristics!” – Will Felps

Ira Glass was a bit “haunted” by the realization that groups are a function of the actions of the WORST team member. He goes further by wondering how often he himself has been the bad seed.

What about you? Have you been the hostile jerk? The indifferent slacker? The aching depressive? Have you single-handedly derailed the success of a project? I know I have. Repent by sharing your bad apple stories and let’s keep the conversation going.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Mark Stelzner

Per a few requests, go ahead and back the apple crusher over your coworkers if you’re uncomfortable calling yourself out. 🙂

Scott Horvath

When you think about it this is definitely true. I’ve been in group settings before where the overall bad attitude of one toward the activity brought down the entire group. But I would be interested to see someone with a really good, exciting, and “go getter” attitude had the same affect on those same people but in the same group at the same time. Which would win “good or evil?” Which attitude has more affect?

Adriel Hampton

Interestingly, the study also found that a good leader – in the one instance from the study, it was someone who asked a lot of questions of each person on the team – cancelled out the bad apple. Now they want to do a follow up to see if that holds out. Bad and good apples – food for thought. Thanks, Mark.

Mark Stelzner

@Scott Horvath – Great question which @Adriel Hampton addresses as well. What was fascinating about the study was the one instance Adriel cites where a very strong leader who simply asks poignant questions can overcome the bad apple effect. Prof. Felps is now running a follow up study to assess whether simply asking good questions can keep a team together and focused. Stay tuned and thanks for the comments guys!

Michael O. Johnston

Very interesting, from college courses and real life experiences I have found that very good leaders can also be the bad apples themselves (i.e. there good leadership skills is what allows them to bring down the rest of the ship). There are many quality real life examples that I can think of who have strong leadership skills and are considered leaders but are “bad apples” and abuse there ownership of this power for evil and self gain (e.g. Hitler, Sudam Hussein, etc. etc..).

Therefore, my question is should you exclude the bad apples and try to push them out -or- try to get buy-in from the bad apples?

Mark Stelzner

@Michael – Maybe we need to narrow the conversation to certain types of bad apples (or bad apple behavior). I too have witnessed tremendous abuses of power in the public and private sector, but I think what’s different is that there never really was a true sense of “teaming” in this situations. The leaders were typically ruling via an oligarchy and did not lower themselves to the point of collaboration with the masses. I guess it all comes down to perspective and who’s assessing the qualities of the fruit.

Denise Hill

We have all experienced “bad apples”. The difficulty is normalizing the “bad apple”. Simply removing them from the team is not an option as they often hold a position of responsibility that makes their presence necessary. Teams members hear more than enough time that they should have and should use the leadership skills (because of course they do not have the authority) to deal with or normalize the bad apple. Interesting, would also like to read Part II.

Pam Broviak

I have just come off an experience where the team had to make the choice: the good apple or the bad. What is amazing to some of us who have tried to analyze this decision, is the team chose the bad apple even though this choice ended up negatively affecting each team member and the overall crew as a whole. When I finally asked one of the team, why he personally made this choice, his answer made it clear that it was the policies and organizational precedents that had set up a system in which they felt forced to choose the bad apple. So I would be curious to see a study that would also look at this. Do those making the choice do so because the system in which they operate “forces” them to go with the bad apple?

Mark Stelzner

@Denise Hill – Great thoughts Denise. As we know, the “real world” is more complex than a university lab, but I also will be curious to see the results of Felps’ next experiment.

@Pam Broviak – Great question Pam. I would speculate that choosing a norm based on precedent would be the “easy” decision whereas rejecting prior behavior would be perceived as much more difficult, irrespective of the outcome. This would especially be the case if one were thought to be an outlier in a group setting. However, I suspect that if each individual member were given safe harbor and asked to vote again, they would choose a different course. That’s why this issue is so fascinating, complex and absolutely frustrating at times.

Michael O. Johnston

Mark and rest of individuals that are commenting,

After listening to the radio interview on Professor Felps, I believe that they focus not on losing the bad apple but to cancel out the bad apple-ness by such a method as Adriel states in his comment “asking questions”.

Also, Mark the statement that I made earlier was only after reading the blog, after having more in depth information on this study (still need to read his studies, only have listened to the radio show and Professor Felps vita) I believe that my idea was more of an extreme example, and if my interpretation of his studies are correct, I believe that Professor Felps is speaking more of those individuals who are great people and have knowledge of the “team atmosphere” and usually act in such a way, but for some reason tend to have isolated cases of the “bad apple” (e.g. be it they don’t believe in the project, don’t have the time, or don’t like the structure of the project).

Mark Stelzner

@Michael – The full study can be found here. I actually see the initial study as Felps’ attempt to assess how the three types of bad apples effect group dynamics. I don’t necessarily agree that he’s modeling well intentioned people who have isolated “bad apple” moments. I am encouraged, though, by the one instance he cites where a strong individual with leadership skills overcame the effect. His next study should be very interesting.

@Andrew Ollivier – A good distinction here Andrew and I do think we’ve been muddling multiple issues. Great suggestions on overcoming the effect and thanks for the great commentary.


Great blog! Very interesting. I have to confess, I have been a bad apple at times — but I usually am quiet about it at least. No Wendy-type sighing! Still, reading this makes me wonder how I’ve affected the atmosphere. I routinely have to attend what I believe are completely stupid and pointless “team” meetings. Maybe next time I’ll try to bring a different attitude to the table.

Interestingly, when I am the leader of a meeting I take a whole different approach. I am more conscious of how my energy affects the team. And I think a good leader CAN cancel a bad apple.

Mark Stelzner

@GeekChick – Thanks for your thoughts. The one thing this whole discussion has consistently accomplished is a more conscientious approach to meetings. I for one have a new hyperawareness about my potentially negative (and positive) impact.

Mark Danielson

As I rolled out of the final arbitration of this week, I looked at what was left of me after paring away my rotten pieces (thinking of your latest,) during the meetings.

There it was: The core.

Thank you for your blog Mark. Great comments all.

Kenneth Watkins

I think the term “bad apple” is a bit nice. I feel a more appropriate titling would be, “malcontent.” I say this with some care, meaning the individual’s status as a “malcontent” would be determined by their awareness of the negative impact being caused by their antagonistic or contrary behaviour/posture.

Now, that I have put that forward, I’d like to say a few words in explanation on behalf of our identified, “bad apple/malcontent.”

I have encountered groups in which the person ultimately determined as the “bad apple/malcontent” was really a person ill-suited to the task, but they are assigned and they try to do their duty amidst deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. What’s worse is that I have participated with some groups where the designated leader was in fact, “the bad apple/malcontent.” Talk about preparing to fail…

It’s my experience that these unfortunate fruits (or nuts) are a naturally occurring phenomenon, and given the circumstance or task; it might be you, or me. None of us knows everything, most of us need encouragement, guidance, and assistance whether we admit it or not, and a lot of us want to appear far greater than we really are.

Sometimes that can really make you look like a “bad apple/malcontent” when the real truth is that you are in over your head and you don’t know how to save yourself, and sabotage begans to look like a viable option. That’s a sad prospect, but when ill-will takes hold, most of us run for the shelter of our like-minded colleagues, whisper, criticize, and gossip, instead of trying to appreciate how lost that “bad apple/malcontent” might be. When you look at it that way, it’s easy to conceptualize how Prof. Felps’ experiment worked.

We all have to own it… You’re either part of the problem, part of the solution, or a room decoration…

Mark Stelzner

@Kenneth W. Watkins – There are so many things I liked about your comments that I don’t know where to begin. Your perspective on the issue is yet another reason that this topic is so fascinating to so many people. I can absolutely relate to the “malcontent” monicker over the “bad apple”, and your point that “..the real truth is that you are in over your head and you don’t know how to save yourself…”

Your last comment was my favorite though – “You’re either part of the problem, part of the solution, or a room decoration.” Might need to put that on a poster. 🙂

Kathy Bowman

Your bad apple is my applesauce, perhaps?

The more styles, the more opportunities. Again… “the highly incented project” defines the sought result as the most desirable result, and frustration of that as undesirable. It’s like dare I say it, investing in bad debt. Do you really wanna take your team there? I know a scientist who singlehandedly saved hundreds of lives by helping corral a dangerous project that would have involved flying four synchronized helicopters and a blimp over Chicago to Alaska. The hole is sometimes the doughnut.