On a recent “This American Life” podcast (National Public Radio), Will Felps, now a professor of Talent at Erasmus Research Institute of Management of the University of Rotterdam, described his dissertation research on the power of a “bad apple” to spoil the whole environment of a team. The interview is at the beginning of this podcast which you can listen to at this link click here to listen for free. His research suggests that a strong negative personality can have a disproportionate effect on the operations of a team working on a joint task. It seems that bad behavior can be contagious and infects all that is taking place in the work environment. Will says he got the idea for his work originally from the experience of his wife, who was working in an extremely negative workplace. However, when the critical player (a guy he described as “mean, but in a funny way”) was overcome by a chronic illness that caused him to be away from work for several days at a time every week, the environment stopped being cold during those days. People encouraged each other and it became a more productive workplace.

The three types of bad behavior Felps looked at in the lab included just such a person (the mean but funny guy who makes fun of others), a confederate who played the disengaged, indifferent slacker, and the seriously depressed person who finds a dark cloud in every sky. In nearly every test group Felps observed, his confederate was able through one of these behavior patterns to influence the group to poor performance. The only exception was one group, where the son of a diplomat used questions to help the group find its direction and get aligned. In that group, his confederate’s influence was neutralized. More on this in a later blog.

The implications of this research for coaching skills development among managers is intriguing. More obvious is the thought that selection and promotion needs to take seriously the kinds of attitudes potential leaders bring with them. The “bad apple” already has more power than others in a team. You don’t want to poison a larger group with these toxins.

You can find information about Dr. Felps at the Erasmus web site ERIM


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