In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle shares research that has me working harder to summon cheer and warmth in the moment—even if, on a given day, I am not feeling like my best self. Coyle cites an organizational behavior experiment done by Will Felps, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
The experiment is set up like this: A group of strangers are brought together under the pretense of creating a marketing plan for a startup. A young man named Nick is planted in the group. He’s there to be subtly disruptive. Felps and his research team are using Nick to find out just how sensitive we are to the behavior of others. In each run of the experiment, a new group arrives, and Nick plays one of three roles—he’s either the Jerk, the Slacker, or the Downer. Without fail, his presence negatively impacts the rest of the group. Mind you, Nick is never called out as the leader of the group—to all the strangers, he’s just another random guy in the room. But still, his mood matters.
I’ll let Coyle tell you the rest:
Nick is really good at being bad. In almost every group, his behavior reduces the quality of the group’s performance by 30 to 40 percent. The drop-off is consistent whether he plays the Jerk, the Slacker, or the Downer.
“When Nick is the Downer, everybody comes in the meeting really energized. He acts quiet and tired and at some point puts his head down on his desk,” Felps says. “And then as time goes by, they all start to behave that way, tired and quiet and low energy…”
“[When Nick plays the Slacker, the group] quickly picks up on his vibe… They get done with the project very quickly, and they do a half-assed job… I’d gone in expecting that someone would get upset with the Downer or the Slacker. But nobody did. They were like ‘Okay, if that’s how it is, then we‘ll be Slackers and Downers, too.’ ”
So, is all hope lost if we get one Nick in a group? The good news is, maybe not! Back to Coyle:
“[There was one] outlier group.” Felps says. “This group performed well no matter what [Nick] did. Nick said it was mostly because of one guy.”
Coyle calls this guy Jonathan, a “thin, curly haired young man with a quiet, steady voice and an easy smile.” Jonathan manages to overcome Nick’s presence and keep everyone moving forward. Felps identified a pattern to Jonathan’s “almost invisible” techniques:
Nick behaves like a jerk, and Jonathan reacts instantly with warmth, deflecting the negativity and making a potentially unstable situation feel solid and safe. Then Jonathan pivots and asks a simple question that draws others out, and he listens intently and responds. Energy levels increase; people open up and share ideas, building chains of insight and cooperation that move the group swiftly and steadily toward the goal.
Here’s Felps with a summary of Jonathan’s impact:
“Basically, [Jonathan] makes it safe, then turns to the other people and asks, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’ … Sometimes he even asks Nick questions like, ‘How would you do that?’ Most of all he radiates an idea that is something like, Hey, this is all really comfortable and engaging and I’m curious what everybody else has to say. It was amazing how such small behaviors kept everybody engaged and on task.”
If you ever come over to the Yoder household for dinner, you’re likely to hear this story. It’s just too important not to share, because it impacts everyone, no matter their rank, role, or tenure. The most important thing, though, is that we use this information to become more aware of how we show up.
So, how do you show up? Do you bring cheer? Warmth? Indifference? Friction? Something else? Are you more often a Nick or a Jonathan? Do you kneecap productivity or accelerate it? And now that you know how much it matters, will you make a point to bring more excitement, warmth, and encouragement to the people you interact with? Your attitude and openness could be the difference between someone smiling or frowning, between a team ending up with below- or above-average results.
It turns out we all have great power over others. So how will you use yours?
Thanks for considering this. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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