The bad egg: the problem of changing group dynamics

Some of the best teachers around will tell you that there are no bad students, just misunderstood ones. Unfortunately, left unaddressed, these bad eggs wander through life reeking havoc on all those around them.

In being social animals, belonging to our tribe is an incredibly important thing. We know that the people we socialise with influence countless parts of our lives. From how positive we are to how we view money and even how successful we can become, there’s a reason the quote about being the sum of the 6 people closest to you sticks.

What people fail to realise is that in addition to having the ability to lift us up, a group can also drag us down. And that negative energy or attitude is unfortunately far more potent than we’d like to admit.

For example, consider the scenario below taken from Jordan Peterson’s book 12 rules for life.

Imagine the case of someone supervising an exceptional team of workers, all of them striving towards a collectively held goal; imagine them all hard working, brilliant, creative and unified. But the person supervising is also responsible for someone troubled, who is performing poorly, elsewhere. In a fit of inspiration, the well meaning manager, moves the problematic person into the midst of his stellar team, hoping to improve him by example.

What happens? … the entire team degenerates. The newcomer remains cynical, arrogant and neurotic. He complains. He shirks. He misses important meetings. His low quality work causes delays and must be redone by others. He still gets paid however, just like his teammates. The hard workers who surround him start to feel betrayed. Why am I breaking myself into pieces striving to finish the project, each thinks when my new team member never breaks a sweat?

Putting a different lens on the situation, one can look at the situation as one regarding reciprocity. By looking at whether the person is a giver or a taker as suggested by Adam Grant, we can see the same dynamic where a group of givers and in-betweeners are subjected to a single taker. Eventually, the taker will wear down the givers to create the same situation as above.

So what do you do when a bad egg enters the group?

The most important thing when dealing with a bad egg is to change your perspective. Stop seeing them as a bad egg and start seeing them as someone who is struggling. You’d be amazed to notice just how much more compassionate and patient you can become when you stop looking at them as a problem to be solved or removed! This is largely because your own biases will be working in overdrive, painting a monster in your mind’s eye and superimposing it onto that individual.

The second thing you want to do is make sure that you are openly communicating, both with your team and the individual. Explain to your team that you know they are doing extra work, emphasise that you appreciate it and that it’s temporary. Then you need to go to the problem individual and do some digging. Find out why they are slacking off, why they’re so negative and pessimistic. To assist, consider questions like the following:

  • Why is the person difficult?
    • Do they want to be part of your team?
    • Do they find the work too difficult and fear failure?
    • Do they find the work too easy and so they’re bored?
    • Do they have a problem with a specific individual in your team or have someone they’re trying to impress?
  • When did the problems become noticeable in this/prior groups?
  • Are there specific situations where they become more difficult?
  • What are they motivated by?
  • What do they enjoy?

Depending on the outcomes of the above, there are typically two options:

  1. remove them (or yourself) from the group
  2. alter their behaviour

In most situations, the first option isn’t really available, especially in a work context like the scenario above. This is the reason that performance management plans are so often implemented. However, they too have the same negative priming effect that can lead the individual to give up until they’re finally removed. The harsh reality is that if you have someone who genuinely doesn’t want to be part of the team, you are all better off having them moved.

The ability to alter behaviour also depends on the answers and insights you obtain about the individual. For example, if you know that they’re motivated by money, you could adopt a commitment device that acts a bit like a deterrent. This is likely preferred to a carrot or reward approach as you don’t want to reward bad behaviour. Alternately, if the behaviour is a defence mechanism, something as simple as team bonding exercises to help them feel a sense of belonging can help break down barriers and encourage them to work towards collective goals.

References

  • Adam Grant TED talk – Are you a giver or a taker https://www.ted.com/talks/adam_grant_are_you_a_giver_or_a_taker?language=en
  • Barrack, M R, Stewart G L, Neubert M J, & Mount M K (1998)- relating member ability and personality to work-team processes and team effectiveness – journal of applied psychology 83, 377-391
  • Dishion T J, McCord J,& Poulin F (1999) When interventions harm: peer groups and problem behaviour – american psychologist 54, 755-764
  • Peterson J, 12 rules for life

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