"When Nick is the Downer, everybody comes into 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 the time goes by, they all start to behave that way, tired and quiet and low energy. By the end, there are three others with their heads down on their desks like him, all with their arms folded."
When Nick plays the Slacker, a similar pattern occurs. "The group quickly picks up on his vibe," Felps says. "They get done with the project very quickly, and they do a half-assed job. What's interesting, though, is that when you ask them about it afterward, they're very positive on the surface. They say, 'We did a good job, we enjoyed it.' But it isn't true. They'd picked up on the attitude that this project really didn't matter, that it wasn't worth their time or energy. I'd gone in expecting that someone in the group would get upset with the Slacker or the Downer. But nobody did. They were like, 'Okay, if that's how it is, then we'll be Slackers and
Except for one group.
"It's the outlier group," Felps says. "They first came to my attention when Nick mentioned that there was one group that felt really different to him. This group performed well no matter what he did. Nick said it was mostly because of one guy. You can see this guy is causing Nick to get almost infuriated—his negative moves aren't working like they had in the other groups, because this guy could find a way to flip it and engage everyone and get people moving toward the goal."
We'll call this person Jonathan. He is a thin, curly-haired young man with a quiet, steady voice and an easy smile. Despite the bad apple's efforts, Jonathan's group is attentive and energetic, and they produce high-quality results. The more fascinating part, from Felps's view, is that at first glance, Jonathan doesn't seem to be doing anything at all.
"A lot of it is really simple stuff that is almost invisible at first," Felps says. "Nick would start being a jerk, and [Jonathan] would lean forward, use body language, laugh and smile, never in a contemptuous way, but in a way that takes the danger out of the room and defuses the situation. It doesn't seem all that different at
first. But when you look more closely, it causes some incredible things to happen."
Over and over Felps examines the video of Jonathan's moves, analyzing them as if they were a tennis serve or a dance step. They follow a pattern: 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 the 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 its goal.
"Basically, [Jonathan] makes it safe, then turns to the other people and asks, 'Hey, what do you think of this?'?" Felps says. "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 about what everybody else has to say. It was amazing how such simple, small behaviors kept everybody engaged and on task." Even Nick, almost against his will, found himself being helpful.
The story of the good apples is surprising in two ways. First, we tend to think group performance depends on measurable abilities like intelligence, skill, and experience, not on a subtle pattern of small behaviors. Yet in this case those small behaviors made all the difference.
The second surprise is that Jonathan succeeds without taking any of the actions we normally associate with a strong leader. He doesn't take charge or tell anyone what to do. He doesn't strategize, motivate, or lay out a vision. He doesn't perform so much as create conditions for others to perform, constructing an environment whose key feature is crystal clear: We are solidly connected. Jonathan's group succeeds not because its members are smarter but because they are safer.
We don't normally think of safety as being so important. We consider safety to be the equivalent of an emotional weather system—noticeable but hardly a difference maker. But what we see here gives us a window into a powerful idea. Safety is not mere emotional weather but rather the foundation on which strong culture is built. The deeper questions are, Where does it come from? And how do you go about building it?