Very 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.