During a recent performance of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, where 22 artistes, in the 9-14 age group, from 15 countries, presented renditions of western classical, Indian and indie-fusion music, I was struck not only by their team work but also by how they united the audience sitting in Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium. They engaged the audience so effortlessly that it felt like everyone was creating the music together.
While researching on the effect their singing had on me, I found some scientific explanation. In a study, Eiluned Pearce, a researcher in experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, has explored why singing creates such a sense of solidarity. After analysing educational charities and musical ensembles in the UK, she and her team came to the conclusion that singing bonds newly formed groups much faster than other communal activities. What startups can learn The larger lessons from the research could help startups, corporates and non-profits, who spend disproportionate resources trying to build a sense of community among employees. Think of all the off-sites, motivational posters, colourful walls and inspiring speakers—they are designed to increase the sense of solidarity among working groups. Most of these interventions, however, fail to deliver, shows research.
In one of my first jobs after college, the HR official proudly walked the new employees through a long, sleep-inducing presentation of interest-based sub-groups in the organization. It was filled with pictures of employees playing cricket, dancing, cooking and painting. Reluctantly, I joined the sub-groups and waited for the next steps. The wait turned out to be longer than I had anticipated. By the time I left the organization, I received just two notifications from my sub-groups—one about the fact that there had been no activity for a long time and the other that the sub-group was being deactivated. Such is the fate of most interest-based sub-groups and communities within organizations.
So, should we take a leaf out of Pearce’s research and have all employees sing together? Obviously, no. Forcing a reluctant singer to join a band or a choir for strengthening organizational culture could seriously backfire.
But we can certainly use the same principles that make singing together meaningful to design opportunities for interpersonal bonding within organizations.
In the Oxford university study, which was published in the Psychology Of Music journal, Pearce collaborated with a British non-profit to test if singing is the only way to enhance bonding. Turns out that other interest-based activities such as creative writing and crafts have similar effects. The only difference is that they tend to be a bit slower than singing.
To apply the research into practice, organizations should consider a three-pronged approach. First, they need to be intentional about design principles of employee engagement. A one-off event or an off-site or a talk by a celebrity doesn’t work. Interesting group activities need to have the same cadence as conference calls.
The Vienna Boys’ Choir is something students participate in over and above their academic commitments at school. They enjoy practising regularly and strengthen bonds with fellow choristers through the process. What if organizations encouraged and supported such intra-company, communal passion projects?
Second, they need to be inclusive. The HR officials or your managers should not be the only ones deciding how and who you bond with in office. Beyond administrative activities, day-to-day management and coaching, they are better off following the light-touch model of college festivals where students from different departments organically come together to organize events on a shoestring budget.
Imagine this in office. Employees from different teams coming together to participate in activities they truly care about. A natural by-product of this engagement would be cross-functional knowledge exchange.
Lastly, companies need to stop measuring cosmetic metrics. As rocket scientist-turned-law professor Ozan Varol says, “We track what’s easy to track—not what’s important—and falsely assume that if we hit these metrics, we accomplished something valuable." Every company is unique in the way it operates. The ways employees bond with each other at Bumble could be different from their peers at Nike. That’s why it is important to pick contextually relevant metrics that are closely aligned with both business objectives and personal preferences of employees.
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Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.