A few years ago I tuned into This American Life, the radio show and hugely popular podcast hosted by Ira Glass. Just as I turned it on, I heard Glass conclude a story this way:
“If listening is all it takes to overcome bad behavior… If listening is more powerful than meanness, sloth, or depression… It’s like a trick from a children’s story, a golden rule kind of lesson that seems way too after-school-special to possibly be true. But by listening to each other, trying to understand each other, we can get to the point where no one can ruin things for everyone else.”
What?! Having studied and taught the power of listening for years, I had to know the rest of the story. After some digging I found the episode (if you’re interested in listening, it’s the first 12 minutes). In it Glass interviews Will Felps, now a Senior Lecturer in the Business School at the University of New South Wales. Glass was interviewing Felps for a show whose theme was “ruining it for the rest of us.”
Felps’ contribution to the show was some research that determined the effect one “bad apple” has on a team’s productivity. He hired an actor to play different roles on teams comprised of college students. On one team, the actor was a “jerk,” who insulted others. On a second team, the actor was a “slacker” who did as little as possible. On a third team, the actor was a “depressive pessimist” who complained and projected team failure.
What Felps found was that in almost every case, the actor’s negative behavior affected the team members’ behavior. They became more like him. In this study, laziness begat laziness; meanness begat meanness; pessimism begat pessimism. As you might expect, this hurt team results. Productivity on teams with the actor was 30 to 40 percent lower than that of the teams without the bad apple. To top it off, Felps discovered something else: it turns out that the best predictor of team performance is not how the best person performs… the best predictor is how the worst person on the team performs.
Fortunately there is some good news that comes from Felps’ research. One team was able to beat the odds, which is where Glass’s concluding words comes in. This team had a leader that did two things differently than other teams had done when confronted with the actor’s negative behavior.
He asked questions.
These two simple behaviors neutralized the negativity of the actor’s behavior. Rather than reacting to the negativity and allowing other team members to do so, this leader sought to understand the actor’s behavior and complaints. The leader’s questions kept the negativity from snowballing. So while the bad apple set the tone for other teams, this leader’s skill kept it from infecting his team.
Listening can overcome bad behavior.
Listening can be more powerful than meanness, sloth, and depression.
The people you work with aren’t likely as abrasive, pessimistic, or disengaged as the actor in Felps’ study (I hope not anyway), but we all have our bad-apple moments. Add to that the fact that many people communicate through email (or Slack or Zoom or whatever) where it’s far easier to interpret others’ comments/behavior as having bad-apple intentions. When that happens, those feelings fester, until the next meeting when someone unexpectedly boils over or shuts down. The bad-apple behaviors have won.
So here’s how to perform the too-good-to-be-true trick Glass references:
Recognize the bad-apple moment. Let the person having it speak, but make sure you’re the next person to do so.
Reflect the thoughts and feelings you heard the person communicate genuinely and from his/her point of view. Why? There are actually two reasons. The first is that there is often important information in what sounds like a gripe or complaint. So listen for the core of the issue.
The second is that you don’t want that team member stuck in a bad-apple mindset and make things worse. You want that person to be contributing to the team and the task, not fighting against it. Listening helps people work through what they’re struggling with so they can participate more constructively. The golden rule actually works.
If the person is being jerkish, your reflection might sound like, “you’re really annoyed with the team because we’re not adopting your plan which you’re convinced is right.” If they’re being a downer, it might sound like,” you’re discouraged because we’re behind and it seems like we’re failing.” Wait briefly for an acknowledgment that your summary is on target. Then…
Ask questions that engage the group and also validate the person having the bad moment. “Do other people feel that way?” “What is valid in Jim’s (the bad apple) critique?” “What could we do as a team to be more effective?” “What next steps should we consider so those negative outcomes don’t happen?”
You and the group are now back in charge. Cue The Osmonds.