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The all-powerful bad apple

It only takes one person to bring down the group. Are you that person?

The book The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle starts out with a fascinating example of a bad apple. Here’s a big quote, but I promise it’s worth it.

Meet Nick, a handsome, dark-haired man in his twenties seated comfortably in a wood-paneled conference room in Seattle with three other people. To outward appearances, he is an ordinary participant in an ordinary meeting. This appearance, however, is deceiving. The other people in the room do not know it, but his mission is to sabotage the group’s performance.

Nick is the key element of an experiment being run by Will Felps, who studies organizational behavior at the University of South Wales in Australia. Felps has brought in Nick to portray three negative archetypes: the Jerk (an aggressive, defiant deviant), the Slacker (a withholder of effort), and the Downer (a depressive Eeyore type). Nick plays these roles inside forty four-person groups tasked with constructing a marketing plan for a start-up. In effect, Felps injects him into the various groups the way a biologist might inject a virus into a body: to see how the system responds. Felps calls it the bad apple experiment.

Nick is really good at being bad. In almost every group, his behavior reduces the quality of the group’s performance by 30 to 40 percent. The drop-off is consistent whether he plays the Jerk, the Slacker, or the Downer.

“When Nick is the Downer, everybody comes into the meeting really energized. He acts quiet and tired and at some point puts his head down on his desk,” Felps says. “And then as the time goes by, they all start to behave that way, tired and quiet and low energy. By the end, there are three others with their heads down on their desks like him, all with their arms folded.”

When Nick plays the Slacker, a similar pattern occurs. “The group quickly picks up on his vibe,” Felps says. “They get done with the project very quickly, and they do a half-assed job. What’s interesting, though, is that when you ask them about it afterward, they’re very positive on the surface. They say, ‘We did a good job, we enjoyed it.’ But it isn’t true. They’d picked up on the attitude that this project really didn’t matter, that it wasn’t worth their time or energy. I’d gone in expecting that someone in the group would get upset with the Slacker or the Downer. But nobody did. They were like, ‘Okay, if that’s how it is, then we’ll be Slackers and Downers too.’ ”

Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code

This was a lightbulb moment for me because I see it all the time but I’ve never realized it.

I’ve been in upbeat meetings that were cruising until a downer joined. And I’ve seen miserable Eeyore meetings turn around when an excited person hopped on.

It only takes one Nick. One downer, or one jerk, or one slacker (which often manifests by multitasking). I don’t want to be the Nick. I can’t be the person that brings the group down.

The book goes on to describe an outlier group. Nick couldn’t bog this group down, because it had Jonathan. Jonathan was so good at encouraging and jelling the team that Nick didn’t have an effect. Nick even found himself being helpful almost against his will.

My resolution is to either be the Jonathan, or leave the meeting. If I can’t help but be the Nick, then I shouldn’t be there. They’re better off without me. Jonathan or bust!


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