I’ve just returned from our summer vacation, and among my books for holiday reading was Ernest Hemingway’s short works. His tale The Old Man and the Sea tells the story of an impoverished old fisherman named Santiago, who hasn’t caught a fish for many weeks. One morning, he decides to head out further than he has ever been before and, after a Herculean struggle, he hauls in an 18-foot marlin, the largest fish ever caught in those parts, and lashes the carcass to his small skiff. But on the perilous route back, a number of sharks eat away at the fish so that, by the time he reaches the shore, only a skeleton remains.
However unsuccessful, Santiago’s spirit remains undefeated. In his own mind, he was given the precious opportunity to wrestle with a worthy opponent and has emerged a hero. He has lost his prize catch but, in his own mind, he is spiritually transformed.
A metaphor for life
I’ve often thought that this powerful image of a lone fisherman transformed by the struggle of the journey itself is a powerful metaphor for the way in which we might consider approach our work. Many of us see ourselves as stuck in a mundane job and consider the work we do a constant struggle with no actual reward except the wherewithal to pay our bills.
Much of what we believe about our work is conditioned by our views of what we ought to be doing or what we believe the boss requires of us in this role. We carry out these tasks often with resentment, boredom or even anger, or grit our teeth and wait for weekends and our vacation time. We are also conditioned to believe that happiness cannot be found in any job.
This has largely to do with the fact that the yardsticks for measuring success lie beyond the essence of creativity and purpose. Your contribution is usually measured by profits or league tables, or some other artificial measurement that has nothing to do with quality or contribution.
Another problem is our own passivity in terms of improving the work environment. We cultivate a thousand small hurts, and harbor hidden resentments when our bosses fail to ask us what we think, or when nobody offers to help us.
We often don’t consider the most important aspect of any job, which is to discover and call upon our spiritual and creative essence. The dullest job can be transformed by attempting to harness your spiritual connection with it and bringing intention to work with you.
Nick Williams, author of The Work We Were Born to Do (Element, 2003), tells the story of one woman who attended a workshop and felt extremely unappreciated. When Williams probed further, she said that her purpose for working was for recognition, which made her feel important. He then asked her if being so needy got her what she wanted, and she agreed that it wasn’t really working.
He then recommended that, for the whole of the following week, she work entirely on making others in the office feel valued and important, and also on attending to their needs—to “try giving rather than getting”.
Her week was transformational. She discovered that when she constantly looked for ways to help others—by offering suggestions, listening when they needed to unload, even bringing them coffee rather than waiting for others to serve her (and resenting it when they didn’t)—for the first time, she felt genuinely appreciated.
What the woman also learned was the power of intention in changing the entire office atmosphere.
The ripple effect
As a professor at the Yale School of Management, Sigal Barsade decided to test what she calls ‘the ripple effect’ of emotion by devising an ingenious experiment with undergraduate students at the business school.
In her experiment, she randomly assigned ninety-four students into small clusters of between two and four, and asked each participant to play the part of managers on a salary committee, negotiating how best to parcel up limited sums as pay bonuses as among their employees.
Each participant had been assigned the role of department head to act as an advocate, attempting to obtain the largest sum possible for a candidate from his department who had been put forward as particularly deserving. Nevertheless, any payouts were entirely dependent upon each group coming to an agreement within a set amount of time.
Unbeknownst to the students, Barsade had placed a cuckoo in the nest – a drama student who’d been specially trained to act a different mood with a different energy level in each group. ‘Rick’, who was always assigned to represent the same employee in each group, was also always asked to speak first, in order to see if his mood would set the emotional tone of the meeting.
The results, which Barsade videotaped, were striking. Even though ‘Rick’ had made identical requests of every group on behalf of his own candidate, each group of participants acted completely in accordance with Rick’s moods.
The collective mood and Rick’s role in creating it also had a significant influence on the tone and outcome of the negotiations. When Rick exuded pessimism and negativity, a group was less likely to cooperate with each other. When he was calm and happy, a group was more likely to bond and work with each other productively. And the more emotionally similar a team, the better its bonus split.
The effect was not only insidious, but also completely unconscious. None of the participants had the slightest idea their moods were being artificially manipulated. When Barsade studied the questionnaires the participants had been asked to fill out about their feelings before and afterward, all attributed their own effectiveness or ineffectiveness in the meeting to other factors — never to collective mood.
Barsade made another fascinating discovery she hadn’t counted on: positive emotion was just as contagious as negative emotion. This particularly surprised Barsade, who’d seen earlier research suggesting that negative emotion was the more infectious mood.
There also seemed to be little difference in group mood, no matter whether Rick was in a high or low energy state, except in one regard. Rick’s moods, when subtly upbeat, were more socially contagious than his subtle, ‘low energy’ bad moods.
In fact, in his ‘low energy’ positive state, he was the most persuasive of all; the group actually gave him more money than he’d asked for. Rick’s extraordinary effect on the collective mood of each group extended to all encounters he had with group members on campus in subsequent months. Those with whom he’d acted positively greeted him warmly; those who’d been part of groups in which he’d been pessimistic continued to greet him with hostility or chilly silence.
Barsade concluded that both kinds of emotion – positive and negative – are highly contagious, but that positive emotions stimulate a group to be cooperative and make more positive choices in decision making, while the reverse held true with negative emotion. Without upbeat collective emotion, people are bad negotiators and make bad decisions.
In this one inspired experiment, she’d managed to demonstrate clearly that emotions are virulent viruses, not only transferring from person to person in an endless and unconscious circle, but also profoundly affecting the outcome of business encounters and negotiations. A business could be more successful with a preponderance of good moods, which would infect its entire human resource.
As Barsade subsequently discovered, emotional contagion occurs readily, even with casual encounters. The simple act of sharing with another person in any way acts to create mood equilibrium — or what she calls ‘collective emotional knowledge’ between people.
Barsade’s experiment is profound illustration of the power of intention. Inevitably, you get the job and office environment that you wish for.