The phrase "one bad apple spoils the barrel" implies the undesirable behaviour of one person can spread to others, impacting the performance of an entire team. Many have experienced this phenomenon, feeling like their team is falling well short of its potential. But is there any evidence supporting this phenonium? A fascinating study has shown that indeed, a single, toxic team member can create group-wide dysfunction and breakdown.


Bad Apple

The Toxic Blend: How One Rotten Apple Spoils the Barrel

We have all worked in teams where there is that one “difficult” person.  They often display a lack of respect for their colleagues, disregard for team goals, and have an unwillingness to take responsibility for their actions. They may engage in gossip, create conflicts, and foster a hostile work environment.

They seem to consume a disproportionate amount of time and energy. Conversations with them feel “heavy” and they tend to sap your energy. There are many common examples - The Brilliant Jerk, The Controller, The Slacker, The Anti-Establishment Person, The Career Politician, The Passive-Aggressive.


The Impact of Toxicity on Team Dynamics

Often teams don’t have any choice but to do their best and simply tolerate the difficult person, citing personality eccentricities, often with a roll of the eyes.  The impact can be severe, ranging from reduced morale, increased stress, burnout, turnover, low levels of creativity and problem solving, along with reduced productivity.


The negative influence of a toxic team member can spread like wildfire, causing dysfunction in the entire group.
- Simon Sinek


rolling eyes

The Toxic Team Member: A Catalyst for Chaos

Will Felps, Associate Professor of Organization & Personnel Management at Rotterdam School of Management, published a fascinating paper titled How, When, And Why Bad Apples Spoil The Barrel: Negative Group Members And Dysfunctional Groups.  The paper discusses how, when, and why the behaviours of one negative group member can have a powerful, detrimental influence on an entire team.  In other words, how one bad apple can rot the barrel.

Felps conducted a social experiment. He took groups of four college students and arranged them into teams. Each team had to compete against the other to solve some management problems. Unbeknown to them, Felps planted an actor in each team, designed to feign one of the three personality types Felps suspected caused major issues:


  1. 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.
  2. The Jerk - will say that other people's ideas are not adequate but will offer no alternatives himself. They'll say "you guys need to listen to the expert - me."
  3. The Slacker - will say "whatever", and "I really don't care."


The existing research assumed that groups had the ability to overcome bad apples and the power of the group would override the bad apple forcing them to change their behaviour. However, Felps findings proved otherwise.

Groups with a bad apple performed 30 to 40 % worse than groups without a bad apple.  The ability to get along, share work and collaborate significantly dropped in groups with a bad apple.

Poor functioning team


The Domino Effect: From Toxicity to Dysfunction

In groups with a bad apple, other team members begin to take on the bad apple's negative behaviour. When the bad apple actor acted out one of the three personalities, the other team members started to act in the same way.  When the actor was a jerk, other team members would begin acting like a jerk. When the actor was a slacker, they began to slack, too. Even worse, they didn’t just act this way to him – they acted this way towards all other team members. The bad behaviour had a ripple-on effect, propagating that type of behaviour throughout the team.

This is an immensely important discovery. One bad apple can cause rot in the entire cart by altering the behaviour of everyone.

Interestingly, there was one exception in the experiment. One group performed well, despite having a bad apple. The difference? This group had a leader with strong skills in diffusing conflict.



Psychological Safety

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson identified psychological safety as a cornerstone of effective teamwork and organizational success.  Psychological Safety is a vitally important part of our consulting work at Radically.

Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking." Project Aristotle, an initiative at Google, sought to uncover the dynamics of successful teams and identified psychological safety as one of the key factors driving high-performing teams. They found psychological safety was more impactful than the next four factors combined.

However, a culture of psychological safety isn't just a leader's job -  it is everyone's responsibility, especially as organisations become more decentralised and self-managed.


Restoring Harmony to Rebuild a Dysfunctional Team

So if undesirable behaviour can damage teams, and it can spread, what can we do about it?

There are broadly two key ways to approach this - by developing a group's ability to self-manage this and through people in leadership and management roles supporting this. the combination of both is the most successful approach.

The Power of Teamwork

Humans naturally form social group norms to guide behaviour. Norms take shape and change over time as the group evolves. Often group norms are implied and unstated, detected through the day-to-day interactions with others.

One way to help bring this into focus is to establish a team charter. This preventative action involves a team defining their desired values and behaviours. It can be quickly achieved with little more than a flipchart and some markers, using prompts such as

  • What would make our team powerful?
  • What can we count on from each other?
  • How do we want to be when we are challenged?

A team charter provides a clear statement of expectations - that is, what good looks like.  If behaviour slips off track, the group's role is to call each other out and self-moderate. However, this assumes the group has the capability and experience to do this. enter the leadership role.

The Role of Leadership

A good leader will help a group retain ownership of their behaviour and step in if it becomes unsafe or they see the group struggling with a lack of skills and experience.

A technique I frequently use is to help the group "notice" their behaviour if it differs from what they said was important in their team charter. The way you do this is very important. Avoid assumptions and embrace curiosity: "I am noticing that [observation]. Do you notice that too or am I misreading the situation?" If they agree, I might facilitate a discussion on what happened and what we can learn from this to improve. Note at no point am I taking ownership. The group is accountable for their behaviour. Reveal dont resolve.

Motivational interventions

Felps calls these “motivational interventions” - acts of teammates that attempt to change negative behaviour via influence. His research shows this is an effective way to deal with The Slacker and The Brilliant Jerk, but is less successful with the Depressive Pessimist.  Most people do not have the techniques required to resolve a teammate’s negative moods, and so tend to simply avoid or reject them. This is where a different leadership stance kicks in. Rather than facilitating (which is for a group), a personal coaching stance would probably be a better choice. In other words, connect with them, empathise,  share how you observe their behaviour impacting the group, and help them consider some options to move forward.


Honest conversation in a team


In conclusion, the impact of a toxic team member carries profound implications for group dynamics and team performance. The fascinating study by Will Felps has provided valuable insights into the impact of a single toxic team member on an entire group. This research has shown that the negative influence of such an individual can indeed spread like wildfire, leading to reduced morale, increased stress, burnout, turnover, and decreased productivity within the team.

Moreover, Felps' experiment shed light on the domino effect of toxicity, where other team members often begin to adopt the negative behaviour exhibited by the bad apple, causing a ripple effect of dysfunction throughout the group. This discovery underscores the critical importance of addressing toxic behaviour promptly and effectively.

Psychological safety, as highlighted by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, emerges as a vital factor in promoting effective teamwork and organizational success. It is essential for fostering an environment where individuals feel safe to take interpersonal risks, contributing to high-performing teams.

To counter the detrimental impact of toxic team members and restore harmony within a dysfunctional team, there are two key approaches: empowering the group to self-manage behaviour and leveraging leadership to guide and support the team when necessary.

Motivational interventions, as described by Felps, offer a powerful tool for addressing negative behaviors, especially when coupled with a coaching stance that emphasizes empathy and constructive feedback.

In summary, the study by Will Felps and the broader discussion surrounding toxic team members emphasise the importance of fostering positive group dynamics and addressing negativity promptly. By promoting psychological safety, establishing clear expectations, and combining self-management with effective leadership, teams can mitigate the influence of the "bad apple" and work together harmoniously to achieve their goals and reach their full potential.

If you are interested in learning more about Will Felps work, listen to this recording from the “This American Life” show. It’s an absorbing interview with Felps.

Many organizations are striving to become more adaptive a means not just to survive, but to thrive.  The success of an adaptive organization hinges significantly on the capabilities of its people, which often raises the question of how to select people for agile teams.

Those who excel in an adaptive environment exhibit three key characteristics. To begin with, they welcome uncertainty while maintaining their focus. Secondly, they focus on outcomes over process. Thirdly, they prioritise the health of the team. By focusing on the traits that define successful teams, adaptive organizations can enhance how they select people for agile teams.


people for agile teams


The Characteristics of High-Performing Agile Teams

From decades of working with successful agile teams, we have learned that the highest-performing teams tend to have the following characteristics:

  1. They embrace uncertainty: They exhibit a high degree of flexibility. They focus on goals and are comfortable adapting the path to reach those goals, often starting with minimal information.


  1. Outcome orientation: They focus on delivering valuable business outcomes, as opposed to frameworks and processes. This often requires them to “loose the training wheels” of agile frameworks once they have built basic reflexes.


  1. Team Collaboration: They actively contribute as team members, fostering cooperation and cohesion within the team. As individuals, they exhibit skills in empathetic listening, collaboration, and valuing team input over individual ideas.


Embracing uncertainty

People who tend to thrive in agile teams avoid spending a lot of time comprehending every intricate detail and potential risk, nor do they meticulously plan. Instead, they are comfortable with enough planning to feel confident in their team's ability to start, accepting that more will emerge as they progress and this emergent work can be discussed and prioritised accordingly.  The secret here is choosing what "enough planning" is for the specific context.

Individuals who embrace uncertainty tend to display high levels of curiosity. They use curiosity to foster a mindset of continuous learning and flexible decision-making (a growth mindset). For example, when working with a team on a complex problem, when they speak they tend to ask questions in order to better understand both the problem along with how others are thinking about it. They avoid assumptions and jumping to conclusions.

They also tend to embrace challenges. They see challenges and obstacles as opportunities for learning and growth. They are more likely to take on new and difficult tasks with enthusiasm. they're open to learning from others and seek feedback that enables them to enhance their abilities.

Finally, they are resilient in the face of setbacks and failures. They understand failure is not a permanent state but a stepping stone toward improvement.

When considering how to select people for agile teams, focus on people's curiosity, approach to challenges and setbacks, their attitude to failure and their persistence to overcome challenges.


Outcome orientation

Clarity on the business outcomes and goals is critical for an organisation that decentralises decision-making. Yet this is often an area where many teams struggle.

We often see teams that take a narrow view of their work, believing their job is to select product backlog items and turn them into outcomes. This is commonly known as a "Feature Factory" mindset, and only differs from a production line by the fact that it is a team doing the work rather than an individual.

Successful agile teams start with a clear business goal and break that down into smaller iteration-level goals together. They focus on the iteration goal, not the tasks. They


  1. Are clear on “the why” (goal) of the iteration. Why are we doing this work and what is the intended outcome we are seeking to achieve? Test whether everyone can clearly articulate the goal and what success looks like.


  1. Co-create “the what” with their stakeholders or product owners. They determine what work needs to be done to achieve the why. If they are working with a product backlog, this means selecting (or creating) work items that align with the goal. Remember the purpose of an iteration is to deliver the goal, not the work items.


  1. Take ownership of “the how” by creating and owning their plan to get that iteration of work completed. It is vital that this is their plan. Leaders must give the team the space to create their plan. People take their own commitments more seriously than commitments made for them by others.


This helps solve one of the most common failures in knowledge work: the people doing the work dont understand the work.


When seeking people for agile teams, check for outcome orientation. How do they remain focused on goals? How do they achieve this when they are head down in the details?  What are their personal habits and traits they use to remain goal-focused?

Team Collaboration

Successful agile teams understand the nature of the problems they are solving are beyond the ability of individuals and require multiple perspectives to find the best results. They actively contribute as team members, fostering cooperation and cohesion within the team.

This often requires significant shifts in behaviour from individuals. Traditional organisations tend to encourage and reward individual expertise. Agile organisations tend to value skills like curiosity, empathetic listening, mentoring, knowledge sharing and giving others an opportunity to contribute. This requires a significant shift in leadership.

When seeking people for agile teams, look for how they work with others. Do they look around the room to check the levels of participation of others?   Are they comfortable accepting a direction a team wants to go in when they personally disagree with it? How do they approach such situations? Ask for examples!


Process for Selecting Team Members

Choosing the right team members can be approached in various ways, each with its own advantages and drawbacks.

Teams choose

Our preferred approach is for teams to choose their team members. They identify the gaps they are looking to fill and the behaviours & values they are seeking. They interview potential new members and have the autonomy to decide.

The risk of this approach is affinity bias and groupthink, where the team tend to look for people like them, whereas diversity tends to result in better teams. A good way to mitigate this in an enterprise setting is to engage with a People and Culture (HR) business partner/advisor. They’re experts in people and can help avoid blind spots.



Sandy Mamoli has had success with self-selection and has written a book about it. We’ve used varying levels of self-selection, depending on the context. We’ve learned that culture plays a key role in self-selection.  A colleague of mine who works in the field of team dynamics and human psychology shared an interesting piece of science on the topic recently. He said, “when a new group forms, they always seek a leader to provide the structure necessary to move towards an emergent order.”  This is an important point – psychology suggests the role of the leader in self-selection is enough structure for emergent order to occur.


Manager led

In our experience, this is the worst way to form a team. It assumes one person is better placed to make the decision, despite the fact that they won't themselves be involved in executing the work. It can work and we have consistently helped organisations to get this approach to work, but in our experience, the other options are more effective.

No matter the approach, selecting team members based on values, behaviours and diversity is key.



Successful agile teams are not solely composed of the most technically skilled individuals but those with the right personality traits and values. The important traits to look for are the ability to handle uncertainty, an outcomes-oriented mindset, and people who focus on team collaboration. These factors are instrumental in building strong and adaptable teams ready to thrive in today's dynamic business environment.


Have you ever seen an email trail get longer and more heated over the course of a few days, only to be resolved in the first 10 minutes of an in-person meeting? Or maybe a misunderstanding from an email or instant message turned into misalignment and tangents of fruitless work? Or perhaps a text from your boss seemed condescending or rude, making you self-conscious and causing your relationship to become a bit more formal and awkward?

Digital communication has revolutionised the way the business world operates and has unlocked countless efficiencies, opportunities, and even new industries. But if any of the above scenarios sounds familiar, you’ve seen the negative impact that can come from leaning on digital and text communication channels over richer forms of communication.

Organisations are made of human beings and the relationships between them. Like modern-day tribes, the way organisations take action is by aligning and mobilising human beings, but unlike our tribal ancestors who were constantly together conveying messages with face-to-face interactions, colourful expressions and body language waving their clubs around, in the modern age we often strip back our communication to letters on a screen that are open to the receiver’s interpretation.

 In today’s dynamic business world effective communication is the cornerstone of a successful organization. While digital communication has become the norm, there is immense value in favouring richer forms of interaction, such as a stronger culture, higher employee engagement, more effective communication, and ultimately the ability to deliver more value, more efficiently.

To unlock this value we recommend taking a philosophy of “walk, talk, write” - meaning if you have a significant message for someone, walk over and talk to them if you can, if not pick up the phone and call them, and use text-based communication only as a last resort.




The most effective way to communicate with someone is to be face to face with them in person - this is the original form of communication that our bodies and minds are designed for! You are able to see body language and facial expressions, hear tone of voice, and feel the presence of one another. There are even many studies showing that humans use olfactory communication, meaning that we receive subliminal messages from one another through smells!

When it comes to building trust, resolving conflicts, and fostering meaningful connections, face-to-face communication is unparalleled. Whenever possible, take the opportunity to walk over and talk to the person directly. Face-to-face interactions allow for immediate feedback, non-verbal cues, and a deeper understanding of the message being conveyed. This form of communication builds rapport, strengthens relationships, and promotes a sense of unity within the organization.



The modern day workplace has changed over the past few decades and it may not always be possible to walk over and speak to someone. In situations where face-to-face communication is not feasible, the next best option is to either use a video calling software or to pick up the phone and call them. 

Video calls provide the extra advantage of being able to see facial expressions and some body language to pick up non-verbal cues, but both forms of communication enable real-time conversations, tone of voice interpretation, and a more personal connection. Phone or video calls allow for immediate clarification, active listening, and the ability to address complex matters efficiently. By prioritizing these methods, organizations can foster meaningful dialogue and maintain a human touch in their interactions.



While text-based communication such as instant messaging or email offers convenience and speed, it should be used sparingly. Text-based exchanges lack the richness of face-to-face or voice-based communication, often leading to misinterpretations and misunderstandings which can cause inefficiencies or even damage relationships. A good rule of thumb to follow is if you’re on the second or third paragraph of an email to someone, just walk over to them or pick up the phone!

However, there are situations where written communication is necessary, such as sharing information or documenting agreements. In such cases, it is important to be clear, concise, and considerate in your written messages to minimize any potential confusion.


Organisational Impact

Using this walk, talk, write approach can help an individual ensure that messages are received correctly and aid in building connections and positive relationships, but the most value comes from an entire organisation harnessing this approach. 

To encourage richer forms of communication, organisations should foster a communication culture that values personal connections and meaningful interactions over transactional text. This can be achieved by promoting open communication channels, encouraging face-to-face interactions, providing opportunities for in person collaboration such as big room planning events or hackathons, and organising teams to be cross-functional to enrich inter-departmental communication. By creating an environment that values direct communication, organizations can enhance teamwork, trust, and overall efficiency.



In the era of digital communication, it is crucial for organisations to recognise the value of richer forms of interaction. As many organisations are losing efficiency from the misalignment, confusion, and weakened relationships that can be fuelled by ineffective communication channels, modern organisations can gain a competitive advantage by fostering a culture which prioritises richer interactions.

So next time your email starts to look like “War and Peace,” just walk across the office to talk to that person or pick up the phone and call them. Or better yet, if your team has started working from home most of the time and you are seeing some friction between team members, identify a day or two per week when everyone agrees to come into the office to have team meetings and collaboration sessions.

Organisations are made of people and interactions and if each person prioritises richer communication channels, the whole system works better.



Modern leaders face a tough challenge - deliver outstanding results while nurturing a work environment that encourages innovation, collaboration, and growth. As a leader, fostering an environment of psychological safety within your team is paramount to managing this balance.

psychological safety

Understanding Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is a concept that encompasses the belief that one can speak up, share ideas, ask questions, or admit to mistakes without fearing negative consequences. It's about creating a workspace where team members feel secure in expressing their thoughts and feelings.

The term was coined by Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, and it has since become a cornerstone of effective teamwork and organizational success. She defines it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

Project Aristotle, an initiative at Google, sought to uncover the dynamics of successful teams and identified psychological safety as one of the key factors driving high-performing teams.


Key Findings of Project Aristotle

Project Aristotle analysed data from hundreds of Google teams to understand the key components that make a successful team. Among the key findings were:

  • Psychological Safety: The most crucial finding was the importance of psychological safety. Teams where members felt safe to take risks and voice their opinions were more likely to be successful. This safety allowed team members to admit to mistakes, ask questions, and share their thoughts without the fear of judgment or reprisal.
  • Dependability: Successful teams were characterized by a sense of dependability. Team members could trust each other to complete their tasks competently and on time.
  • Structure and Clarity: Teams with clearly defined goals, roles, and plans were more effective. When team members knew what was expected of them and how their work contributed to the team's goals, it fostered a sense of purpose.
  • Meaning: Successful teams found a sense of meaning and purpose in their work. They believed that their work had a positive impact and were aligned with the organization's mission.
  • Impact: Teams that felt their work made a difference in the world or in their organization were more motivated and successful. Understanding the significance of their contributions increased team members' engagement.


Psychological safety at Google


Total Motivation

These findings are well supported by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor’s work from their outstanding book Primed to Perform. I highly recommend viewing this webinar we ran with Neel during lockdown. It is a game changer.

Neel and Lindsay on psychological safety

The Four Stages of Psychological Safety

The concept of psychological safety involves four stages:

  1. Inclusion: This is the first stage where individuals feel that they are part of the group and that their contributions are valued. Inclusion sets the foundation for psychological safety by creating a sense of belonging.


  1. Learner Safety: In this stage, team members feel comfortable asking questions, seeking feedback, and admitting mistakes without fear of ridicule or negative consequences. This is essential for fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement.


  1. Contributor Safety: Contributor safety takes psychological safety a step further by encouraging team members to actively share their ideas, opinions, and concerns. They believe their input is not only welcome but also essential for the team's success.


  1. Challenger Safety: The final stage, challenger safety, encourages team members to voice dissenting opinions and engage in constructive debate. Team members are not just comfortable with their ideas being heard; they actively challenge the status quo to improve processes and outcomes.


These four stages represent a progression toward a work environment where team members not only feel safe but are also empowered to engage fully, question assumptions, and drive innovation and growth.


The Six Benefits of Psychological Safety


  1. Elevated engagement stems from a workplace environment that fosters a sense of safety and security. This heightened engagement manifests during team meetings, problem-solving sessions, collaborative project work, and interactions with both customers and colleagues.
  1. Cultivating an inclusive organizational culture: Creating an inclusive workplace has become increasingly critical. Inclusive environments embrace diverse teams and enable all members to thrive, regardless of factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, background, or political affiliations. This fosters a dynamic, collaborative atmosphere where everyone experiences a sense of belonging and unity.
  1. Nurtures creativity and fosters innovation - For creativity and innovative ideas to flourish, it is essential that team members feel comfortable expressing themselves. Consider the countless innovative ideas that may have gone unspoken due to a team member's hesitation to share them in an environment lacking a sense of safety.
  1. Enhanced employee welfare - Mental health plays a significant role in the overall welfare of individuals. When employees enjoy good mental health, they are better equipped to operate at peak performance and mitigate stressors that might otherwise hinder their productivity.
  1. Reduced employee attrition - a recent study found that employees who experience psychological safety in their workplace exhibit reduced inclination to depart. After all, why depart from an organization that treats you with respect, ensuring your sense of security and value? The significant costs associated with recruiting, hiring, and training staff, among other expenses, render high employee turnover an unsustainable model for thriving businesses.
  1. Enhanced team effectiveness: When your workforce comprises deeply engaged, loyal employees, teams thrive. When a culture of inclusivity prevails, coupled with brand advocacy and a wellspring of innovative ideas, teams excel. When you combine these factors with the well-being of your employees, you've assembled a winning formula for elevating team performance.


psychological safety



By actively promoting psychological safety and embracing these key findings, you're not only contributing to the well-being of your team members but also paving the way for your organisation's long-term success, as demonstrated by Google's Project Aristotle. Remember, the seeds of psychological safety that you sow today will yield a bountiful harvest of innovation, collaboration, and growth in the future.


Interested in diving deeper into this top? Come along to our Psychological Safety in the Workplace.



Meet Ryan Jones.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up outside of Atlanta, Georgia in the USA, went to uni in the UK, came over to New Zealand in 2017 and have absolutely loved it here.


Do you have any hobbies? What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

I’ve been a musician since I was young and have always loved listening to and making music. I’ve been in many different bands growing up, and nothing can beat a good jam session with mates. My wife Rachael and I also love getting out into nature and we go camping and hiking as often as we can. We’ve managed to do 8 of the 10 Great Walks and hope to do the other two soon!


What made you get into consulting?

The modern office world can be a very strange and unnatural environment and I’ve always been passionate about making a dent in this to help people become more engaged and at ease in their workplace. Eventually in my career I realised that as a consultant I can use my skills to make a bigger dent!


Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

My wife is currently pregnant with our first child, so in 5 years I see myself fulfilling the most important job title of my life - Dad!


Throughout your time at Radically, what is one key thing that you have learnt?

Organisations are modern day tribes and are made solely of people and relationships, so the more that you can make each interaction and relationship as rich and meaningful as possible, the healthier the organisation will be! 

Also, I’ve seen many organisations struggle to deliver at pace because information has to flow up to the top levels of management for decisions to be made, which results in slow pace and ill-informed, biased decisions being made. When clear strategic direction is given by leaders and decision-making authority is delegated to people who are closer to the work (with clarity on constraints and guardrails), it results in better and faster decisions, and a more empowered and engaged workforce.


What advice do you have for other leaders?

Because organisations are solely made of people, relationships and interactions, make your interactions more meaningful by prioritising richer communication channels. Just remember “walk, talk, write” - if you have a significant message for someone, walk over and talk to them if you can, if not pick up the phone and call them, and rely on email and messaging only if necessary!