Everyone loves groups. What's better (in America at least) than being part of a "team"? Collaboration is cool. (Is there a word that's been rehabilitated more completely than "collaboration"? Fifty years ago, someone who "collaborated" wasn't a good person, but a traitor.) Collective intelligence is the solution to the world's problems. Smart mobs are... mobbish, perhaps, but also smart, and that's what matters.
Groups are powerful... but for all their power, they're also fragile. University of Washington academics Will Felps and Terence Mitchell constructed a very interesting experiment to show just how fragile they are, by demonstrating the effect of "bad apples" on the effectiveness of small groups.
Groups of four college students were organized into teams and given a task to complete some basic management decisions in 45 minutes. To motivate the teams, they're told that whichever team performs best will be awarded $100 per person. What they don't know, however, is that in some of the groups, the fourth member of their team isn't a student. He's an actor hired to play a bad apple, one of these personality types:
- 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.
- 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."
- The Slacker will say "whatever", and "I really don't care."
The conventional wisdom in the research on this sort of thing is that none of this should have had much effect on the group at all. Groups are powerful. Group dynamics are powerful. And so groups dominate individuals, not the other way around. There's tons of research, going back decades, demonstrating that people conform to group values and norms.
But Will found the opposite.
Invariably, groups that had the bad apple would perform worse. And this despite the fact that were people in some groups that were very talented, very smart, very likeable. Felps found that the bad apple's behavior had a profound effect -- groups with bad apples performed 30 to 40 percent worse than other groups.
A paper describing the experiment, "How, when, and why bad apples spoil the barrel: Negative Members and Dysfunctional Groups," is available as a PDF.
Thanks to Mathias for the link.