One bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch, girl.With all due respect to the wisdom of 13-year-old Donny Osmond, there is now some research indicating that the negativity of one person really can bring down an entire team. Jeff Atwood writes about it here in Coding Horror.
Oh, give it one more try before you give up on love - One Bad Apple, The Osmonds, 1970
The study took teams of four college students, gave them a task to do, but, in some groups, one member was actually an actor playing the role of one of three personality types: depressive pessimist, jerk, or slacker. The researcher found that "groups that had the bad apple would perform worse." Also, the group as a whole would take on the characteristics of the bad apple.
There's a lot to criticize in this study. The task took 45 minutes, so the group really had no chance to readjust itself. The negative groups performed 30 to 40% worse; if one of four was trying to undermine the team, this doesn't seem like such a surprising result. Having such small teams distorts the results, as a larger team might have been able to work around the apple more easily. And it's not clear to me that college students will create ad-hoc teams that are as resilient as standing teams made up of people who have some experience dealing with the difficult.
Experience tells me, however, that there's also some real truth in this study. Someone who's determined to be negative really can hurt the performance of a team. But there's even another level to which we should take this thinking (I'm going to omit my thoughts on what happens if the manager is the bad apple, which I've seen; suffice it to say that there's nothing more dreadful than to work for someone who is undermining the team at every turn).
This kind of study can easily be used by upper management as an excuse for hiring and retaining the sunny positive people who already seem to do disproportionately well in our society. There are two basic kinds of negative people: those who are just plain ornery, determined to bring their own personal unpleasantness into every situation and interaction; and those who are responding to conditions and circumstances that are counterproductive.
The first type really are dead weights, naysaying everything because that's their world view. Teams can get infected by these sorts, though a good manager will recognize it and find ways to correct it.
The second type, on the other hand, are worth listening to. Their negativity is coming out of real-world events, and reflects an environment that has problems that should be addressed if the team is to be at its best.
We can look at the last eight years in this country, especially the last five or so, where so many were critical of President Bush. Some did so because they saw potential partisan advantage accruing to themselves, but there was nothing to be gained by listening to them, though they could well create an unpleasant climate.
The others were trying to bring to light some very real risks and dangers that the Bush presidency constituted to the ideals of this country. Sure, they were negative, but it was a negativity borne out of the optimism that this country really could live up to its own standards.
We need to work to differentiate the two types of bad apples. The first type foments chaos, the second can bring needed change. I'm not optimistic, not when "Keeping a positive attitude" is a rated category on job performance assessments. We will continue to value those who remain cheerfully oblivious over those who are sardonically clear-headed. The cheerleaders will continue to win, even though change tends to come from the cynics.