Workplace Contagion and Adoption

Stuff (the PG word) spreads. It’s a commonly held opinion that ideas, attitudes, behaviors, and the like, are in some ways contagious within a workplace environment. This isn’t a newsflash by any means, but it’s something we have to be cognizant of as we lead and/or work within organizations. If you’re super bored and want to dig into this further, you could check out Bion’s Experiences in Groups (1961), Le Bon’s The Crowd (1896), or Zimbardo’s The Human Choice: Individuation, Reason, and Order Versus Deindividuation, Impulse, and Chaos (1970). You know, in all your free time.

This contagious effect can have decidedly positive or decidedly negative outcomes in a workplace. Stated simply, ideas, attitudes, behaviors, and sometimes even experiences (more on that later) are almost like colds in that they can be caught by others; they can spread. In other words, there are times when people begin to experience things vicariously through others rather actually experiencing them themselves. Think about New Year’s Eve in New York, Mardis Gras, and other similar scenarios. In these sorts of contexts, we can see the contagious nature of the excitement. The crowds often crescendo toward euphoria at points, and even those of us at home watching on TV can get sucked into the moment.

On the other hand, we’ve certainly seen negative outcomes that are the result of similar dynamics, haven’t we? We see riots after trial verdicts that certain folks found disagreeable. We watch on TV as college students flip over cars and light stuff on fire after a particularly difficult loss in a football game.

This sort of thing can be manipulated, of course, be it by individuals or groups. Politicians, for example, engage in this sort of thing all the time. So do some religious leaders. And some parents.

This contagion can be seen within organizations too. There are some conditions that make it more likely that negative stuff will spread throughout the organization, right? Sometimes, when there’s a lot going on within an organization, but employees don’t have enough information or input, it’s more difficult for them to make rational sense of the goings-on. It’s significantly harder to achieve commitment to an organizational cause in this sort of atmosphere. Instead, what tends to happen is that secrecy sends waves of doubt, fear, and rumors rippling through the organization, both formally and informally.

I said I’d come back to the “experiences” thing. Well, this is me coming back to that. In a weird sense, experiences are often adopted by employees who did not actually experience a thing. This happens more often than you might think. Here’s what I mean. Say, for example, that someone has a crappy experience with their manager. Depending how vocal and upset that employee is, and depending how long the issue goes unresolved (at least to that employee’s satisfaction), that crappy experience is going to be talked about. I’m not saying it’s appropriate that it’s being talked about all over the place; I’m just trying to be a bit of realist. That stuff happens.

Well, as that happens, other employees–especially those within that employee’s inner circle of acquaintances–often begin to adopt that employee’s feelings about that manager (or the organization), even though they’ve never experienced the same thing with that manager. In workplaces where the grapevine is particularly strong, this sort of thing is even more likely, and the effect is usually far more widespread. People all over an organization “know” that Manager X is super mean. After all, did you hear what he said to Employee X? Back in 2006?

It’s important to note here–Employee X had a situation with Manager X–we’re not disputing that necessarily. But Employees A-W and Y-Z didn’t have that same experience. And yet somehow (hint: by way of the dynamic we’re discussing) some of these employees tell that story like it’s their own, don’t they? And in some ways, they even feel the offense as if it had happened to them, right? So people begin to adopt the negative experiences of others as their own, and those negative experiences almost become the stuff of legend and lore within an organization’s ongoing narrative. It becomes part–and often a disproportionately large part–of the story within that workplace.

It’s important to understand this organizational dynamic, and it’s important to be proactive about it. Ensure that communication is flowing well through all parts of the organization. Remove any barriers–either formal or informal–to vulnerability and trust. Take a look at the power dynamics within the organization. Ask yourself questions about your processes and structures. And take a moment to think through your organization’s story. Not the one you might tell in your glossy marketing pieces, but rather, the one that’s already being told by the employees.

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