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How bad apples ruin it for the rest of us

Struggling with productivity?  Ever stopped to wonder why?  Could you be carrying a few bad apples? 

Look around any company and, chances are, you’ll find at least one negative or challenging person.  You know the type.  Mood hoovers that suck the joy out of any interaction.  People who bitch about others behind their backs or dismiss people’s ideas. This toxic behaviour from a few bad apples can spread like a virus.  So much so that researchers have warned it can spoil the whole apple cart.

The bad apple experiment  

Dr Will Felps, a professor at Rotterdam Business School, was inspired to look into how workplace culture is affected by difficult employees after his wife’s experience.  She’d been unhappy at work, describing it as cold and unfriendly.  Then another member of the team was off sick for several days. 

‘And when he was gone, my wife said that the office’s atmosphere changed dramatically,’ Felps said. ‘People started helping each other, playing classical music on their radios and going out for drinks after work. But when he returned to the office, things returned to the unpleasant way they were. She hadn’t noticed this team member as a significant person in the office before he came down with this illness. Still, upon observing the social atmosphere when he was gone, she believed that he had a profound and negative impact. He truly was the “bad apple” that spoiled the barrel.’

So Felps set about designing an experiment. He took groups of four college students and arranged them into teams.  Each had to compete against the other to solve management problems and was incentivised with a cash prize of $100 each for the best performing team.  Unbeknown to them, Felps planted an actor in some of the teams to play the three personality types that tend to cause significant issues: 

  1. The Depressive Pessimist – always complaining that their task isn’t enjoyable and making statements doubting the group’s ability to succeed.
  2. The Jerk says that other people’s ideas are rubbish but offer no alternatives.
  3. The Slacker – who says ‘whatever’ and ‘I don’t care.’

Shifting team dynamics

Conventional wisdom would hold that most ‘good’ employees should overwhelm the bad.  Anyone would think that mainly because the students in this experiment were motivated by an immediate cash reward. However, within just 45 minutes, Felps observed how the team dynamic started to shift regardless of the type of bad apple planted in the team.  45 minutes!  That’s fascinating.

The actors had been told not to be dominant.  Their brief was to be negative but submissive.  The rest of the team were bright, motivated students from a top university who’d volunteered to participate.  And yet, the teams with the bad apples still performed 35 to 45% worse than those without.  Felps noticed how these teams would argue and fight.  They didn’t share information, and communication dropped like a stone. 

Spreading toxicity

Then there was something even worse than the immediate drop in performance. After some time, the experiment showed that the bad behaviour spread.  The other three ‘good’ team members started to take on the characteristics of the bad apple.  When there was a jerk in the team, they all became jerks.  When they had a slacker, the rest of the group took their collective feet off the pedal.

So bad behaviour has a reinforcing effect.  When four people are slacking in a team, it becomes far more difficult for one person to overcome the group inertia.  This is toxic, and you need to be eternally watchful that it isn’t creeping into your team dynamics.

The negativity bias

Here’s the thing.  Human beings are hard-wired for negativity. It’s a well known scientific fact that the human brain has a ‘negativity bias’ – it reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems bad. Our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat news than good news.  And nastiness naturally makes a more significant impact on us.  

Felps says that the best predictor of team performance is the worst team member.  Wow.  That’s a big statement with far-reaching implications.

Talent assessment

I find the results of Felps’ experiment fascinating.  It fits my view of the world when I discuss talent assessment with our clients.  The three types of bad apples examined in the investigation are different from our definition of a ‘Toxic A-Player’.  But they all share negative performance criteria.

The slacker, jerk and depressive pessimist are classic examples of C-Players on a talent assessment matrix.  Whether it’s a Toxic A or C-Player, it’s easy to persuade clients they need to take action against these bad apples.  But when it comes to B-Players, things get more tricky.

The results of Felps’ experiment show that if you stick with B-Players, your whole team will operate at B-Player levels of performance.  Is that really what you want?  Not if your business needs to grow – and grow fast. 

Average performers versus A-Players

There’s always tension around B-Players.  I read an article recently on the EO blog that made my blood boil.  ‘Why you need average performers in your company’, the headline declared.  No, no, no!  This is so wrong.  The premise of the article was that if you didn’t have a load of plodders, your staff turnover would be too high.  What a load of garbage! 

The article went on to say that you only need a few stars.  Really?  I wonder if this is a definition thing.  Perhaps when the author talks about average performers, he’s talking about people who have no desire to be promoted. But this doesn’t make them average.    

You can be an A-Player without massive ambition for upward promotion.  Maybe you just love what you do, and you’re good at it. That makes you an A-Player (the top 10% of talent for a given job, salary and location).   Not everyone wants to be a manager, and that’s fine.  In my life, I’ve known A-Players who clean, wait tables or work behind the bar.  They’ve done these roles all their lives.  They get out of bed every morning and look forward to the day.  They have no desire to own the pub/restaurant etc.  But they can serve 15 people, add up in their heads, put glasses in the dishwasher and take food orders all at the same time. 

These are the types of people you want.  People who genuinely love their jobs.  And why would you put them in teams with slackers, jerks or depressives?  It will make their lives hell. 

The impact of leadership

There was a small glimmer of hope in Felps’ experiment.  One of the groups performed particularly well despite the bad apple in their midst.  By chance, another person in this team had innate leadership characteristics.  He’d ask questions to engage his fellow team members and diffuse any conflict.  In essence, he was coaching the team to higher performance.  This person didn’t have any formal status.  He just happened to have natural coaching ability.

So strong leadership is essential.  As well as hiring A-Players, you need managers who act as coaches.  With both of these combined, you could get a 45% improvement in productivity from your teams. And you wouldn’t need to pay a penny more. Think about that for a moment.  Imagine how quickly this could transform your business.

Measuring productivity

How do you know that the output you’re getting from your teams today is at the right level?  We see this all the time.  Too often, there’s no objective measure of an acceptable level of productivity in companies. 

When I joined IT Lab, we had a large engineering team.  Two years later, it was half the size but still achieving the same level of work.  Likewise,  at Peer 1, I inherited subpar teams.  Through talent assessment and cultural transformation, the team grew our managed services revenue by 25% year over year without hiring anyone new in 2 years.

External benchmarks can give you a good handle on productivity. There’s a danger of allowing your teams to be mediocre without these. You need to know what great looks like.  Or even good!  Too often, people will say, ‘It’s not too bad.  Fred’s OK’.  No!  Fred’s rubbish.  You could hire someone that’s 5x or even 10x more productive than Fred for the same money.  This is the difference between A- and B-Players. 

Consider using peer board groups.  EO, YPO, Vistage or Bizpedia  – any of them can help here. They allow CEOs to see and share performance metrics in a non-judgemental way.  If you’re a managed service provider in IT, some organisations can pool data together so you can get performance benchmarks for your service teams.  Then you can track productivity and work out if any bad apples are ruining it for the rest of your teams.  

Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here.

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