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Culture Crushers

October 27, 2020

In last week’s post, I talked about how culture matters more, not less, in times of crisis.

It’s important to prioritize building a positive culture for your team, even when other pressing matters are vying for your attention.

The concept of culture is a topic I come back to because of questions I’m frequently asked by leaders. I find that people want something tangible and tactical they can do to enhance their culture. 

I’ve previously explained that culture creators and culture carriers are positive forces who can help build and maintain the culture of your team. But today I’m going to talk about people on the other end of the spectrum—the people who crush your culture.

Will Felps, professor at Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, designed a real-life bad apple experiment to see how one bad team member could affect the performance of the rest of a team. He divided college students into small groups and assigned them a task to complete together. What they didn’t know was that some groups had a bad apple planted on their team—a hired actor who was consciously a downer, a jerk, or a slacker. 

The study found that the groups with these bad apples performed 30-40% worse than their counterparts. It gets worse. They didn’t just perform poorly, but some of the other members of the group took on the traits of the bad apple. A group with a downer would become more pessimistic as a whole. A group with a jerk would produce more jerks. A group with a slacker would make the rest of the team apathetic. On the whole, the experiment confirmed that one person can crush the culture of an entire team.

Some of you might be thinking about a person on your team right now. Maybe this is discouraging because you aren’t in a position to remove that person from your team. 

I have some good news. The experiment conducted by Felps produced one outlier that should give us hope. One group who had an actor playing a jerk was still able to push through to complete the assigned task well. In this group, there was another team member who was a strong leader. Whenever the jerk said something negative, the stronger leader quickly diffused the situation and reminded the team of their collective goal. As a result, the rest of the group chose to follow this leader rather than the bad apple.

So here’s the moral of the story: If there is a culture crusher on your team and you have the power to get rid of them, do it. Stop putting off the tough conversation. Pull the plug for the sake of your team. 

But not all of us have this kind of power. If you have a culture crusher on your team and you can’t get rid of them, choose to be the leader that your team needs. Be the positive force in your organization. Be the bright spot by reminding your team of your collective vision. As Martin Luther King Jr. said,

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

Don’t let one bad apple ruin the whole bunch!


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