Groups are thought to be strong: United we stand, divided we fall. E pluribus unum. In reality, though, just one negative person can ruin an entire group, according to research by Will Felps highlighted on This American Life. Felps identified three personality types that can ruin a group: jerks, slackers, and depressive pessimists. One person who fits any of those personality types can make an otherwise productive group 30 to 40 percent worse. “What was sort of eerily surprising,” Felps said of his research, “was how these team members would start to sort of take on” the characteristic of the bad apple. Groups with a jerk in them started being mean to each other. Groups with a depressive pessimist often acted more depressed.
Group dynamics can also give way to group think. Too often, Jake Mohan writes for the Jan-Feb issue of Utne Reader, “Fruitful dissent evaporates, self-defeating tendencies surge, and corrosive emotions destroy the potential of group work.”
There are strategies to overcome the problems in group dynamics. Mohan writes that “Team leaders can encourage constructive dissent by playing devil’s advocate and disagreeing with a unanimous decision, prompting a timid voice to pipe up.” In Felps’ research, there was one group that didn’t do worse, even with a bad apple. In that group, according to Felps, “There was just one guy who was a particularly good leader. And what he would do was he would ask questions and he would engage all the team members and diffuse conflicts.” The question that Felps is currently researching is whether a good leader can overcome the obstacles provided by all the jerks, slackers, and depressive pessimists just by asking questions. His previous research would suggest that it’s possible.