The Remedy for Bad Apples

It’s the oldest problem: what should you do about bad apples in your group, those chronically negative, team-sabotaging people who possess a genius for dragging others down?

The most straightforward solution is to simply fire them. Many groups have zero tolerance for bad apples (“No Dickheads” is the way the New Zealand All-Blacks rugby team puts it.) The research is clear: bad apples are a severe drain on productivity, innovation, and cooperation.  But for many groups, firing bad apples may not be a simple option. So the question remains: what do you do?

One potential answer is to develop the skill in what might be called Bad Apple Neutralization. We find a good example of this approach in the research of Will Felps, who studies organizational behavior at the University of South Wales in Australia.

Here’s the story: Felps gathered 40 four-person groups to perform a task, then hired an actor named Nick to work inside those groups while portraying three negative archetypes: the Jerk (an aggressive, defiant deviant), the Slacker (a withholder of effort), and the Downer (a depressive Eeyore type). In effect, Felps injected Nick into the various groups the way a biologist might inject a virus into a body: to see how the system responds.

Nick was really good at being bad. In almost every group, his behavior reduced the quality of the group’s performance by 30 to 40 percent. The drop-off was consistent whether he plays the Jerk, the Slacker, or the Downer. Except for one group.

“It’s the outlier group,” Felps said. “They first came to my attention when Nick mentioned that there was one group that felt really different to him. This group performed well no matter what he did. Nick said it was mostly because of one guy.”

The guy’s name was Jonathan. He was a thin, curly-haired young man with a quiet, steady voice and an easy smile. Despite the bad apple’s efforts, Jonathan’s group was attentive and energetic, and they produced high-quality results. The more fascinating part, from Felps’s view, was how subtly Jonathan accomplished this.

“A lot of it was really simple stuff that is almost invisible at first,” Felps says. “Nick would start being a jerk, and [Jonathan] would lean forward, use body language, laugh and smile, never in a contemptuous way, but in a way that takes the danger out of the room and defuses the situation. It doesn’t seem all that different at first. But when you look more closely, it causes some incredible things to happen.”

Over and over Felps studied the video of Jonathan’s moves, analyzing them as if they were a tennis serve or a dance step. They followed a pattern: Nick behaved like a jerk, and Jonathan reacted instantly with warmth, deflecting the negativity and making a potentially unstable situation feel solid and safe. Then Jonathan pivoted and asked a simple question that drew the others out, and he listened intently and responds. Energy levels increased; people opened up and shared ideas, they cooperated beautifully.

“Basically, [Jonathan] makes it safe, then turns to the other people and asks, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’” Felps said. “Sometimes he even asks Nick questions like, ‘How would you do that?’ Most of all he radiates an idea that is something like, Hey, this is all really comfortable and engaging, and I’m curious about what everybody else has to say about this. It was amazing how such simple, small behaviors kept everybody engaged and on task.” Even Nick, almost against his will, found himself being helpful.

The signals Jonathan used so successfully are called belonging cues. Belonging cues operate through a structure deep in the core of our brains called the amygdala. You’ve probably heard of the amygdala before: it’s our fight-or-flight alarm system that continually scans our environment for threats.

Science has recently discovered, however, that the amygdala also plays a vital role in building social connections. It works like this: when you receive a belonging cue, the amygdala switches roles and starts to use its immense unconscious neural horsepower to build and sustain your social bonds. It tracks members of your group, tunes in to their interactions, and sets the stage for meaningful engagement. In a heartbeat, it transforms from a growling guard dog into an energetic guide dog with a single-minded goal: to make sure you stay tightly connected with your people.

“The whole thing flips,” says Jay Van Bavel, social neuroscientist at New York University. “The moment you’re part of a group, the amygdala tunes in to who’s in that group and starts intensely tracking them. Because these people are valuable to you. They were strangers before, but they’re on your team now, and that changes the whole dynamic. It’s such a powerful switch—it’s a big top-down change, a total reconfiguration of the entire motivational and decision-making system.”

The key to dealing with bad apples, then, is to do what Jonathan did: to flood the zone with belonging cues. Here are some ways you can do that.

  • Overcommunicate your listening. Many people underestimate the importance of nonverbal communication when it comes to safety. “Posture and expression are incredibly important,” said Ben Waber, a former PhD student of Alex Pentland’s who founded Humanyze, a social analytics consulting firm. “It’s the way we prove that we’re in sync with someone.”
  • Preview future connection. Seek and find ways to make links between this moment and some larger, shared goal. It could be as inconsequential as a Christmas party, or as big as a championship game, so long as it spotlights the deeper truth: we are all in this together.
  • Ensure everyone has a voice. The best way to do this is use mechanisms that generate full-group contribution. For example, many groups follow the rule that no meeting can end without everyone sharing something. Others hold regular reviews of recent work in which anybody can offer their two cents. Others, like Google, establish regular forums where anyone can bring an issue or question before the group’s leaders, no matter how controversial it might be. But no matter how strong the rule, the underlying key is to have leaders who seek out connection and make sure voices are heard.