ECG Principal Richard Barr, PhD, takes a look at the positive side of having difficult members on a team in the first of a two-part series.

Play a quick game of word association: Hammer — Nail Fly — Swatter Problem — Solution

The pairings attract like magnets of opposite charge. So it is no surprise that a Google search on "difficult team member" identifies innumerable links of the same chain, all advising how to deal with the difficulty—to solve the problems these people create without quite resorting to swatting them.

Lady Macbeth apparently had it right when she cried: "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!" The secret to dealing with problem people sometimes seems to be just telling them to disappear.

But what price is paid for rubbing out troublesome spots? It's worth considering the value of difficult teammates before engineering their disappearance. At the least, they may shed light on shared dilemmas. At best, they may hold the key to resolving them.


Folk wisdom warns that one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. Yet family and group theorists insist that a bad apple can teach us much about collectives. Both fields suggest troublemakers hold a vital mirror up to the whole—they can teach and not just torment us.

In family therapy, a bad apple is called "the identified patient," the one falsely believed to have the problem. In reality, that person's difficulties partly stem from, and shed light on, the family as a whole. In this view, a defiant teenager may not only display rebellion, but also expose issues of power and control that permeate the household. Troubled families may depend on the fiction of an identified patient and their corresponding roles to maintain stability.

Similarly, in theories of group dynamics, the bad apple is called "the scapegoat" and is punished for problems actually shared by the group. Such punishment and blame contribute to group cohesion, because nothing unites better than a common adversary. The scapegoat is typically punished for being different in some way, thus "holding" collective anxiety that the group's differences are more fundamental than what they have in common.

The scapegoat may differ in more quickly and vocally responding to tensions that affect the entire group. This possibility bears close attention when the scapegoat presents as a malcontent. If a scorned teammate complains endlessly about turf or access, he or she may exhibit self-involvement but may also reveal that team roles, responsibilities, and information flow are not well defined. The danger of shooting the messenger in such settings is clear, but too often scapegoats find that teammates respond to their loathed person instead of their potentially instructive perspective.

For groups to cohere properly and become high functioning, scapegoats must not be "sacrificed" (through ridicule or even expulsion) but embraced. Understanding their issues holds the key to the group's successful negotiation of collective difficulties.

Just as we welcome the first robin as a harbinger of spring, perhaps we should applaud the arrival of a scapegoat. Their emergence may be a positive sign that the group is moving into the turbulent "storming" phase, which must be negotiated to advance to the next stage of "norming." As the next part of this series discusses further, the emergence of easily loathed difficult personalities may introduce energies vital to effective team dynamics.

For more on difficult team members, read Dr. Richard Barr's second article on the topic, Harmony v. Discord.