Apollo Syndrome was coined by Dr Meredith Belbin and describes the phenomenon in which teams of highly capable individuals perform poorly as a collective. Whilst counter-intuitive, I’m sure many of you can think of examples where you’ve seen this happen (the first that comes to my mind is NBA All-Star teams). I should clarify, by badly I mean with a lack of synergy (they perform worse than they should given their individual talents).

There are many reasons for this phenomenon and I’m sure the brighter of you all can come up with a few yourself just by thinking about it. Belbin specifically noted the following flaws in Apollo teams:

  • Excessive time spent in abortive or destructive debate in which members try to persuade others to adopt their own point of view, and demonstrating a flair for spotting weaknesses in others’ arguments (the latter part is such a good description of me).
  • Difficulties faced in decision making and decisions that were reached displayed incoherence and were somewhat inconsistent.
  • Members tended to act individually without taking into account what other members were doing, making the team difficult to manage.
  • Members recognised what was happening but overcompensated by avoiding confrontation, which equally added to problems.

These are somewhat axiomatic – now that I’ve listed them to you, you’re probably thinking it makes a lot of sense. Apollo teams do work though, and in understanding their failings you can help maximise their benefits.

In general, successful Apollo teams lacked highly dominant individuals and had a particular style of leadership. As with all relationships, some sort of compromise must be available so that everyone is kept in line.

The overarching theme of Belbin’s work relates to the concept of synergy. You’re all probably aware of what synergy is but in practice, most people will choose raw “stats” (of an individual) over how well they fit into the team. I guess the lesson to take from here is to consider each person’s ability to contribute, not how qualified each person is by themselves.

What’s interesting is this also displays the tendency for “Alpha males” to butt heads. This is an evolutionary remnant of our primal selves, so I find it quaint that it still exists in so many forms in contemporary society. However, I do have a conflicting theory that I may mention in a later post.

Apparently, Apollo Syndrome has evolved to be used as a term to describe the condition of a person having an overly important view of their own role within a team.

The negative synergy that is a result of Apollo teams is often characterised as a “Deadly Embrace”, a computing term in which two programs will prevent each other from making progress. The most common example is when two programs take exclusive control of a particular file, and then try to gain access to the other file. Each program will refuse to relinquish their own file and wait for the other to release their’s – therefore nothing ever happens. Applying this to human teams can be quite an apt analogy.

As interesting as this is as a little tip and a bit of extra knowledge, you might not see much relevance of this to your daily lives. In that case, I would encourage you to read between the lines and apply the core principle to appropriate scenarios. Apollo Syndrome is often taught in management courses (that’s where I learned it from – a management course at my university) and does in fact have relevance and impact. It’s not just another funny little theory that nobody pays attention to – it’s definitely something to keep in mind.