When the conversation turned to his status as the first American to hold the much-coveted WBC World Heavyweight Championship belt in eight years, no one would’ve batted an eye if Deontay Wilder attributed the achievement to his considerable skill and punching power.
Instead, the former Olympic bronze medalist boxer explained, “When one guy is doing good, it makes all the others want to achieve greatness. It’s contagious to do great. But once that one bad apple falls, everybody else will fall, and that’s how it is.”
Apples in a barrel
Though your own “ring” may look suspiciously like an office and be devoid of uppercuts and left hooks, this “greatness contagion” does not observe such boundaries. No matter the theoretical architecture of your barrel, the quality of the apples you share it with matters.
An actual bad apple in an actual barrel, according to Mental Floss, emits the “gaseous hormone…ethylene”—a ripening agent, which, concentrated, can trigger the same effect in other fruit. “Given the right conditions and enough time,” the author explains, “one apple can push all the fruit around it to ripen and eventually rot.”
The same concept applies to people, with one huge exception. One “single, toxic team member” has been shown to serve as “catalyst for group-level dysfunction.” That was one finding of a 2006 paper in the journal Research in Organizational Behavior aptly titled, “How, When, And Why Bad Apples Spoil the Barrel: Negative Group Members And Dysfunctional Groups.”
And here’s the huge exception that scientists found: With people, it only takes one good apple to save the barrel. That’s good news, and it gets better. With the proper interpersonal skillset and knowledge base, you could, in fact, be that apple.
Learn to recognize your “Nick”
Dan Coyle opens his fascinating deep dive into The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups with the story of how University of South Wales professor Will Felps managed to force the “bad apple” effect out into the open for closer study.
It begins with mischievous-yet-brilliant experiment concocted by Felps in which he brought together forty four-person groups “tasked with constructing a marketing plan for a start-up”—then injected “Nick,” an actor embodying three “bad apple” stereotypes: The Jerk, the Slacker, and the Downer.
“Nick is really good at being bad,” Coyle writes. “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.”
Previous research suggests this is not a fluke. As Felps himself noted in his 2006 Bad Apples paper, “simply observing another person’s expressions of effect can generate those feelings in others” and “subjects working together on a task partially adopted the confederates mood.”
Further, “whereas a positive emotion (i.e. compassion) wears off relatively quickly, researchers find that when they give someone a negative feeling (i.e. anger) to concentrate in, the physiological effects last over 5 hours.” In geek terms, the dark side of this force is strong.
Perhaps worst of all, the bad outcomes these phenomena may engender can gain destructive momentum. “After a team failure occurs,” Felps et al write, “the negative member behaviors are more salient, and thus more influential.”
Before we begin our campaign to have the Academy create a Best Actor in a Social Science Experiment category, however, it’s important to note our antihero was not able to get all his targets to go bad.
The downward spiral: a cautionary tale
In designing the experiment, Felps recognized that options for dealing with a bad apple were limited. In fact, the professor boiled it down to three, none of them very appealing.
The first, “motivational intervention,” is essentially an attempt to reform the negative employee by, say, “withholding of praise, respect, or resources until behavior changes, subtle and not so subtle confrontations, formal administrations of punishments, or demands of apology and compensation.” Second is “rejection,” or kicking the troublesome internal agitator to the curb.
“If either the motivation intervention or rejection is successful,” Felps writes, “the negative member never becomes a bad apple or spoils the barrel.”
For whatever reason, if the first and second options are not possible, frustrated team members may descend into the third option, “defensive self-protection,” manifestations of which can include “lashing out, revenge, unrealistic appraisals, distraction, various attempts at mood maintenance, and withdrawal.”
Happily, by the time Felps appears in Coyle’s book a little over a decade later, through discord generator extraordinaire “Nick” he has discovered a fourth, much more attractive option.
Finding your inner “Jonathan”
Out of the forty groups “Nick” nudged and prodded toward chaos, thirty-nine took the bait. One hold out performed well regardless—thanks to a single affable “good apple” Coyle dubs “Jonathan.”
“Over and over Felps examines the video of Jonathan’s moves, analyzing them as if they were a tennis serve or a dance step,” Coyle reports. “They follow a pattern: Nick behaves like a jerk, and Jonathan reacts instantly with warmth, deflecting the negativity and making a potentially unstable situation feel solid and safe.
“Then Jonathan pivots and asks a simple question that draws the others out, and he listens intently and responds. Energy levels increase; people open up and share ideas, building chains of insight and cooperation that move the group swiftly and steadily toward its goal.”
The whole scene plays out like some modern-day workplace version of The Screwtape Letters with the shunned temptations piling up until Nick is left “almost infuriated.”
From this, Coyle draws two lessons about “good apples”: One, though “we tend to think group performance depends on measurable abilities like intelligence, skill, and experience” and “not on a subtle pattern of small behaviors” in this instance “small behaviors made all the difference.”
Second, Jonathan “succeeds without taking any of the actions we normally associate with a strong leader. He doesn’t take charge or tell anyone what to do. He doesn’t strategize, motivate, or lay out a vision. He doesn’t perform so much as create conditions for others to perform, constructing an environment whose key feature is crystal clear: We are solidly connected.”
“Jonathan’s group succeeds not because its members are smarter,” Coyle concludes, “but because they are safer.”
Developing your own personal good apple armor
Researching the “Good Apples” chapter, Coyle began to notice some of the “little moments of social interaction” that can help make a team Nick-resistant were consistent—“whether the group was a military unity or a movie studio or an inner-city school.”
It’s not as complicated as you might presume. In fact, the following sampling of simple, practical maxims from The Culture Code can get you started:
- Close proximity, often in circles
- Profuse amounts of eye contact
- Humor, laughter
- Physical touch (handshakes, fist bumps, hugs)
- Intensive, active listening
- Lots of short, energetic exchanges (no long speeches)
- High levels of mixing; everyone talks to everyone
The message is clear: Intent, whether negative or positive, matters. The positive can win out, if it is integrated into an actionable plan and you understand what you’re up against.
At a personal level, it’s good to know the good apple need not fear the barrel. By pursuing the right thing the right way, you can transform your own team and leadership qualities for the better.