Does Your Agile Team Have a Bad Apple?


This is a guest post by Edwin Dando. Edwin is a professional Scrum trainer with Scrum.org and a consulting manager at Assurity Consulting in New Zealand. Read more of his articles at Agile for Everyone.


A fascinating recent study has shown that a single, toxic team member can create team-wide dysfunction and breakdown.

We have all worked in teams where there is one “difficult” person. That person seems to take up a disproportionate amount of the team’s time and energy. Conversations with him or her feel “heavy” and they tend to sap your energy. There are a number of manifestations of this phenomenon, from the passive-aggressive group eroder, the blunt/rude dominant, the controller, the slacker, the anti-establishment guy, the divide-and-conquer schemer, the arrogant fat head, etc. I am sure some of these sound familiar.

So, if we sometimes have to work with this sort of person, what impact does this have on us as a team?

This typically isn’t really ever measured or understood. Most teams just put up with the difficult person, citing personality eccentricities and just tolerate them (often with a sigh or a roll of the eyes).  Often teams will look to someone more senior in the organization to deal with the difficult person.

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Will Felps, Associate Professor of Organization & Personnel Management at Rotterdam School of Management, wrote a fascinating paper titled “How, When, And Why Bad Apples Spoil The Barrel: Negative Group Members And Dysfunctional Groups“. The paper discusses how, when and why the behaviors of one negative group member can have a powerful, detrimental influence on an entire team. In other words, how one bad apple can ruin the entire group. The findings are fascinating.

Felps conducted a social experiment. He took groups of four college students and arranged them into teams. Each team had to compete against the other to solve some management problems. Unknown to them however, Felps planted an actor in each team, designed to feign one of the three personality types Felps suspected caused major issues:

  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.”

Here is what he found.

Most research to date had assumed that groups had the ability to overcome bad apples. It assumed that the power of the group would override the bad apples and force them to change their behavior. But Felps findings proved otherwise.

Invariably, groups that had the bad apple would perform worse. Bad apples had a significant impact on the group, with these groups performing 30 to 40% worse than groups without a bad apple in them. The ability to get along, share work and collaborate significantly dropped in groups with a bad apple.

That’s no surprise, right? We have all worked in these groups and would expect productivity to be lower. But here’s the rub.

In groups with a bad apple, other team members begin to take on the bad apple’s characteristics. When the confederate acted out one of the three personalities, the other team members acted the same way. When the bad apple was a jerk, other team members would begin acting like jerks. When he was a slacker, they began to slack, too.

Even worse, team members didn’t just act this way to him. They acted this way towards all other team members. In other words, one person’s bad behavior has a ripple on effect propagating that type of behavior throughout the team.

This is an immensely important discovery. One bad apple can cause rot in the entire cart by altering the behavior of everyone.

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Interestingly, there was one exception in the experiment. One group performed very well, despite having a bad apple (confederate). The difference? This group had a leader with strong skills in diffusing conflict.

Remind you of one of the key roles in Scrum?

Listen to this recording from the “This American Life” show. It’s an absorbing interview with Felps.

We simply cannot tolerate this sort of behaviour. It ruins entire teams which in turns returns entire products. Don’t tolerate it. Ultimately, there are only three options:

  1. Nothing – live with it. Clearly not a good option.
  2. Preventative action – as a team, define an agreement on what sort of behaviors would make our team powerful and what we can count on from each other. We create a team artefact, often called a “Social Contract” to capture this. I will discuss this more in post three in this series. If behavior slips off track then we can confront him or her about the behavior – what Felps’ called “motivational interventions”.
  3. Reject them out of the team, for the sake of the Team. Is this hard? Yes – it is very difficult but nobody said this was easy. We know values and behaviours impact teams and as post two in this series will show, how negative emotions kill teams.

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Motivational interventions are acts of teammates that attempt to change negative behavior via influence. He shows how this is a common and effective approach to deal with The Slacker and The Jerk, but is not so successful on the Depressive Pessimist. Team members tend not to have the techniques required to resolve a teammate’s negative moods, and so tend to simply reject the bad apple, rather than attempt to motivate him or her.

Note – a motivation intervention or rejection requires that teammates have some power and skills. A good social contract and a good facilitating ScrumMaster can help with this.

Bad apple flow chart

Next post, I will look into an incredible discovery in the world of social psychology – mirror neurons. These incredible little things make us experience other people’s emotions as if they were our own.

Perhaps this can go some way to explaining Felps’ findings.

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