Recently I heard an interesting podcast about a research project on group effectiveness conducted at Rotterdam School of Business in the Netherlands.  In this study, groups of college students were brought together to complete some management tasks.  They were unaware that an actor was hired to play the role of a “bad apple” in order to observe the impact on the group.  The bad apple would act like a jerk (“have you ever even taken a business course?”), slacker (text messaging friends during meetings), or depressive pessimist (displaying a lack of energy and enthusiasm, like lying his head down on the table). 

Across the board, the group with the bad apple was far less effective (30%-40%) than the control groups.  Not only that, but it only took 45 minutes for others in the group to take on some of the behavior of the bad apple.  45 minutes!  That’s about halfway into the time of a typical small group gathering.

To the surprise of the research professor, Dr. Will Felps, there was one group that was not impacted by the bad apple.  In that group, there was a person who had exceptional leadership skills.  Dr. Felps said this person listened to everyone, asked great questions, and defused conflict.  Because of this type of leadership, the bad apple did not get in the way of the group’s experience. 

Most people who have led a small group have experienced a bad apple to some degree-anywhere from someone in the group having an off night to ongoing behavior patterns that are, well, unpleasant.  Imagine if, because of your leadership, your small group increased its effectiveness by 30%-40%.  What would that mean for the kingdom of God?  More spiritual growth, more poor served, more hearts transformed, a deeper understanding of God’s character?  Although it’s impossible to measure the impact of your small group, it’s hard to doubt the validity of statistics like those in the study. 

Tara Miller and I recently published a book called Finding the Flow: A guide for leading small groups and gatherings that helps people develop skills that make them better small group leaders.  All of the qualities necessary to become an exceptional leader, according to Felps, are covered plus a few.  To decide if this might be a helpful resource for you or your small group ministry, consider these suggestions taken from Finding the Flow:

1) Spend an evening discussing the topic of listening with your group.  Ask everyone to share when they felt the group was really listening to them versus a time when they felt unheard.  Ask for their thoughts and ideas on how to improve the collective listening of the group.

2) Come up with a list of your top ten most powerful small group questions.  For example: How do you want this conversation to affect your life? What is the impact of this conversation on you?  Keep them on hand for times when you’re having a hard time keeping the conversation flowing. 

3) In your small group, spend time up front-preferably before a conflict arises-establishing an agreement for how conflicts between group members will be handed.  For example:  We will attempt to address all conflicts by going first to the person who offended or hurt us. (More suggestions on specific ways to do this are found in the book.) 

Jenn Peppers |

Co-author of Finding the Flow and co-founder of FLoW, LLC


*The interview, conducted by Ira Glass of This American Life, is thought provoking, entertaining, and well worth the 13-minutes.   It’s based on a research paper entitled How, When, and Why Bad Apples Spoil the Barrel: Negative Group Members and Dysfunctional Groups by Will Felps, Terence R. Mitchell, and Eliza Byington (2006).