The Bad Apple: Group Poison

Jeff Atwood from Coding Horror wrote this piece to discuss Will Felps’ findings about the impact of individuals on group behavior. Basically a negative individual can and does have a greater negative impact on a group of positive individuals than they do on him. It’s an interesting piece that I can relate to very well given some of the jobs that I have previously held.

The warehouse lifer – as a student I worked a number of different industrial jobs during the summer. These jobs were tough, dirty and they didn’t pay very well but I didn’t care, I was able to make some money for school and regardless of everything, I was going back to school in September. There was a common trend in almost all of these jobs, the full timers were miserable and the summer students were positive for the first few weeks or months of the job. But inevitably my attitude about the job would change and I would come to hate it mid way through the summer. It was weird to me because the full timers were making at least 2 times the money of the summer workers, they were given the best jobs to do and they had the protection of the union to prevent them from having to do the dirty crappy jobs. However, over time their poor attitude would rub off on me and I would start to emulate their behaviour.

The lifter turned fitness professional – I have worked with many people who love lifting and working out but who make the bad call that since they love working out they would love working at a gym. While I can see why they make this connection, the two things are not very similar. When you are working out, you are doing exactly what you want to do and you basically own your time. When you are working for someone else, they own your time and you do whatever they tell you to do. One of these individuals can drive down the morale and ambition of a training team very quickly. They complain about the owners and management, they complain about the systems that are in place and they know more about how to run a business than anyone else around them. The problem is, they don’t run their own gym and they don’t bring anything to the table in terms of solving the problems they see.

Clients at the gym – calling clients bad apples isn’t entirely fair because they get trainers because they know they cannot do it on their own. The problem with these types of clients is that they never change their attitude about working out and come to the gym believing that the trainer will be able to make them successful at something they hate doing. Unless the trainer is very strong willed and able to let their clients negativity just roll off of them, they are going to impacted by the bad attitude and eventually give up on believing that the client can do it.

Will Felps’ research revealed that the negative impact of a bad apple was mitigated by a good leader; a person who was able to frame the negativity with conversation and questions about the validity of the beliefs. Doing this tends to prevent the other members of the group from buying into the pessimism and it can often give the bad apple the opportunity they need to actually make decent contributions to the group.

Shelley, my first boss at GoodLife was one of these people. She was able to challenge people’s beliefs about things in such a way as to uncover possible solutions to the problems. She understood the culture of the job but also the critical aspects our roles and was able to help us generate solutions that improved staff buy-in. The outcome was that our club did very well in terms of morale, staff and member satisfaction, and she was able to build a strong community within the Milton club.

It’s an interesting piece that I recommend reading. And if you are a fan of irony, read through some of the comments.