1: Meet Nick.
He’s “a handsome, dark-haired man in his twenties,” Daniel Coyle writes in The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.
Nick is sitting in a conference room in Seattle with three other people. “To outward appearances, he is an ordinary participant in an ordinary meeting,” Daniel notes. “This appearance, however, is deceiving. The other people in the room do not know it, but his mission is to sabotage the group’s performance.”
Welcome to the “Bad Apple experiment” run by Will Felps, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Will has trained Nick to portray one of three different negative archetypes: “the Jerk (an aggressive, defiant deviant), the Slacker (a withholder of effort), and the Downer (a depressive Eeyore type),” Daniel notes.
Will placed “Bad Apple Nick” into forty four-person groups charged with creating a marketing plan for a start-up. Nick is essentially a virus injected into groups “the way a biologist might inject a virus into a body to see how the system responds,” Daniel observes.
2: Turns out Nick is really good at being bad.
“In almost every group, his behavior reduces the quality of the group’s performance by 30 to 40 percent,” Daniel writes. “The drop-off is consistent whether he plays the Jerk, the Slacker, or the Downer.”
What behaviors does Nick have in his bag of tricks?
As the Downer, he is tired and quiet. At some point, he puts his head on his desk.
What happens then?
“As the time goes by, they all start to behave that way, tired and quiet and low energy,” Will shares. “By the end, there are three others with their heads down on their desks like him, all with their arms folded.”
When Nick is the Slacker, “the group quickly picks up on his vibe. They get done with the project very quickly, and they do a half-assed job,” Will shares. “They’d picked up on the attitude that this project really didn’t matter, that it wasn’t worth their time or energy.”
3: This attitude surprised Will.
“I’d gone in expecting that someone in the group would get upset with the Slackers or the Downer. But nobody did,” Will notes. “They were like, ‘Okay, if that’s how it is, then we’ll be Slackers and Downers too.'”
With one exception. Which we will investigate next.
Reflection: Have I ever had any experiences in a group with a real-life “Nick.” What happened? How does the overall learning here impact my role as a leader?
Action: Journal my answers to the questions above.