Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Bad Apple theory

Over many years, I have seen this particular theory in action many times, in different kinds of communities. It usually afflicts strong ones, with a high degree of cohesion and of the collective self-regard. People locate all their problems in one or two particular members. If only this person, - the theory goes – would have left, we would be so much stronger, and things would become so much better. In some cases, it is the official leader of the community that gets the bad apple designation, but in most cases, it is just one of them. The one thing I am sure of – it does not work. Whenever one bad apple leaves, someone else immediately takes his or her role, and a new schism ensues. In the worst case scenario, a community gets worse with every round of the bad apple removals, and eventually tears itself completely apart. It does happen, and I have seen it happen. (This does not mean I have not – in the past – embraced it; I did, and am not proud of it).

Where does it come from? Again, it afflicts groups who have a strong collective sense of themselves. Their collective expectations are perhaps a little inflated, a little unrealistic. Real people have a hard time meeting those. Next, we all have a tendency to personalize evil. In other words, when things go wrong, it is incredibly liberating to us to see that it is someone’s fault. This is why we have such a hard time dealing with natural disasters, and why we cope brilliantly with acts of terrorism. An enemy is a gift of a sort, a place where we could deposit our rage. On a smaller scale, this is how the bad apple phenomenon works. Once we start picking apart one of us, - and sometimes with good reasons! – the negative bias becomes self-perpetuating. Keep looking for bad things in one particular person, and reinforce your findings with your friends and colleagues – and viola, you will find a lot more bad things. Moreover, this one person’s real or imagined failings become the cause of the general malaise. We as a community are not what we can be because of the one bad apple. This thought is as comforting as it is misleading.

Next, a lot of time and energy is diverted from positive things into routing out the bad apple. As a results, fewer good things are done, the community falls behind of its own expectations even further, and there are even more reasons to blame the bad apple.

Of course, the bad apple is a position, a role rather than one person’s intrinsic qualities. Not one of us can sustain the prolonged negative attention of an entire group without eventually starting to behave badly in response. So the bad apple is created, albeit unintentionally. And bad apples tend to fight back, making the whole cycle even more vicious and eventually self-defeating.

Great communities find a different way of dealing with the bad apples. They still have their outliers; by definition, if a community has a set of expectations, someone has to be less conforming than others. It is just a statistical fact. But great communities embrace their bad apples, even treasure them in a weird way which I cannot quite pin-point. Rather than removing the bad apple, everyone is concerned about finding the right place for it.

A doze of humility is an essential component of a great community; it includes the general realization that humans are very flawed creatures to begin with, and that none of us the “good” apples is that great either. There is also a healthy tolerance for imperfection: we as a community is not perfect, and things do not always go as they should. And finally, great communities are focused on the outside, and are not obsessed by their own internal relational dynamics. They simply don’t have time to worry who is a better apple; they have a lot to do.

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