The Bad Apple: Group Poison

A recent episode of This American Life interviewed Will Felps, a professor who conducted a sociological experiment demonstrating the surprisingly powerful effect of bad apples.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

Jesus was kind of a guy who didn’t fit in his society. There in Palestina he was the bad apple? Are you the companys bad apple (= Messias)?

Shame you rarely get to choose your team.

I prefer a bad apple than bad milk.

So, should you just commit seppuku if you are a bad apple?

The sub-prime tummyache was caused by too many good apples.
Anyway that study is hardly exhaustive, typical sociological pseudo science crap.

Isn’t this something which is always know for all teams, groups et al that ‘A group can walk only as fast as the slower member’ or ‘A chain is as strong as the weakest link’. So here you have reinstated it as A team is as good as the worst apple in it

Well, I was elated to see you had posted again :slight_smile: in just one day, but tell you this was not as interesting as normally your posts are. I mean… Tell me something I don’t know!

btw I loved the statement - If you can’t tell who the bad apple is in your group, it might be you

A bad apple comes from a good apple being left to simply rot, being bruised and again left to rot. Bad or lack of good leadership turns good apples into bad apples. But human beings are not as apples. Good leadership, inspiring leadership can turn most ‘bad apples’ into ‘good apples’.

The most frightening scenario is that most of the people who are in leadership roles are themselves ‘bad apples’.

Do you think this just a scenario?

Each time I was thinking about talking to my team lead about bad apple I used to work with, I realized that complaining about team member makes me bad apple as well.
Thanks God, he left for better job, making this job also better

Hey Now Jeff,

The bad apple described as a slacker, that is a good one.

Get rid of the bad apple you are either a good apple or bad apple. I enjoy working people in the 20%

Coding Horror Fan,

So the teams were 4 people each, and those with 1 bad apple performed 30-40% worse. Is that really so surprising? You’d expect them to perform at least 25% worse with 1/4 of the people actively trying to ruin things. And how accurate could the measurements have been anyway?

Of course I haven’t actually read the paper, so perhaps there is something in there that that would totally shut down my argument. If someone who has read the paper can point that out, I’d appreciate it.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to assume that this is yet another quasi-scientific study that looked hard for a marginal and somewhat subjective effect in a small sample size and, SURPRISE SURPRISE, found it.

I remember this meeting of a social group back when I was in University (looong ago!): They had invited a Brazilian member of the Landless Workers Movement. The girl explained how they tried to get back their land from the local all powerful landlords. And how hard it was. But how peaceful they wanted to keep anyway. And everybody in the room agreed that the movement was right and good and every other good feeling you may want.

Then a stupid agressive old guy entered and shouted that In my time, (World War 2), we would have taken guns and kicked this morons ass! You are stupid and will get only what you diserve if you’re not ready to fight: nothing!. The guy was obviously not constructive, the typical bad apple example.

But! Without being aware of it, he raised questions in a couple other people and the conversation eventually uncovered several negative side effects of the actions explained by the girl.

Conclusion is that without that bad apple, we wouldn’t have used our brains. I still hate the guy: He was rude and totally unconstructive. But the fact is that his presence helped the group improve its reflexions.

@MacBet, j_random_hacker: cough Depressive pessimist cough

Actually, it’s quite obvious that bad apples do affect the group and the outcome. Perpetual bad apples know this, it is their form of control.

Jeff, try to get the name right. I think it’s Will Felps but you use three names: Wil, Felps and Phelps. Two out of three seem to be wrong…

Anyway, something’s awfully wrong with your theory. You suggest we get rid of the bad apples, right? And there’s always a bad apple, right (you suggest that if you don’t know who it is, then it is probably you) ? So that means that you always have to kick someone from the team, until, eventually, you remain alone and there can be only one bad apple: you. So, you kick yourself and you’re left with an empty team.

I’m sure there are cases when there are no bad apples in the team! In my team, everybody struggles to get the best work done, each person is an optimist and I don’t recall hearing nor saying anything like it can’t be done or this is bad or i know better.

Your article’s logic is deeply flawed… You usually write excellent stuff, but I doubt you thought very well about this one.

  1. The Depressive Pessimist will complain that the task that they’re doing isn’t enjoyable, and make statements doubting the group’s ability to succeed.
  2. The Jerk will say that other people’s ideas are not adequate, but will offer no alternatives himself. He’ll say you guys need to listen to the expert: me.
  3. The Slacker will say whatever, and I really don’t care.

Yup. I qualify on all of these. Where do I sign up?

This experiment cannot be fully objective: in real life bad apples are not always hired bad apples, doing the bad apple whatever it happens and whatever the group does.
Genuine bad apples will be affected by the group dynamics as well as other members, and in some cases, under the right circumstances, the bad apple effect can be contained.
Saboteur bad apples, individuals paid to sabotate a project, on the other side, will just try to maximize the detrimental effects of their behaviour, with far worse effect on the group.

Put in other words, a genuine bad apple can be resolved removing what causes him/her to do the bad apple, if it is possible; otherwise, remove the apple
But when the group faces true behavioural saboteurs, it is a whole different thing nothing less than the removal of the saboteur can fix.

You may also want to take a look at this article:

Although I find the study a bit fishy, I thought this was common knowledge. In college we often did team efforts. Often if one person emited his I don’t give a crap attitude, this would spread to the other team members like wildfire.

A way to detect a leader from a person that has a leader’s position is to see how he/she can either change that attitude of this person, or in the worst case isolate that person.

In my life I have only met one such person and it’s amazing what he could squeeze out of a group and how every time his team would have much-above average results. Even if this team’s members were different people time and time again.

Face facts with your posts Mr Jeff,

  1. What you keep writing about is repetitive. I can never see anyone really getting into your blog for too long. You only write whatever it is that gets your ads clicked on.

  2. You ideas are rubbish. You keep going on about great management techniques. But your techniques seem to call everyone bad apples or not good enough. You should spend more time reading about real life examples than just churning out the same recycled drivel time and time again.

  3. Where are you really going with this blog. Do you have a point to make? I don’t think anyone commenting on your blog really cares what you have to say as it completely lacks any substance. I am really surprised you didn’t quote yourself from a previous post, you sure as hell link to some useless stuff you wrote previously.

Read my name before replying to the above.

But seriously;
You keep saying get rid of the bad apple, why don’t you learn some management techniques (or even some diplomacy) and get on with whatever it is you have to do.

I’ve worked in a few offices where I have seen what you call bad apples. After sitting down and asking them what can be done to make things better (this is called empowerment), I found it is very easy to bring them around and make them productive.

Continually labeling people in the way you do does nothing to bring them into what is going on. What you are doing only serves to isolate people further. And then you can get your power trip by calling someone (quite obviously someone where you now work) a BAD APPLE.

You are not helping anyone Jeff. Not yourself, not your workplace and certainly not the bad apple. Maybe, just maybe it’s the geeky jerk who sees everything and everyone in black and white.