Taking off the mask

Imagine you’re in a large room full of people you don’t know. You feel slightly awkward, unsure where to start, as you continue to look for familiar faces. Then, amidst an attempt to make small talk with someone, you discover you have something in common, and you grab onto it like a rope connecting the two of you.

Maybe you shared a small thing, like where you were born or went to school or that you have children of the same age. Or maybe it’s something you experienced, like losing someone to a disease, or suffering from one yourself. That exchange, that bond, can fundamentally change how you relate to each other. 

Now imagine that room is actually your company, full of thousands of people from across the world. 

The mask we wear

“The fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets.” wrote Haruki Murakami. But at work, most of us feel compelled to hide behind a mask of cool professionalism. As a result, our “greatest asset” is reduced to an impersonal sameness, and the chances for human connection are greatly reduced.

You needn’t wear all your personal information on your sleeve or announce it in every meeting. You just have to be your whole self, willing and open to offer what makes you you. When you feel you can do that, you experience what neuroscientists might call an “internal resonance” or “coherence.” producing a sense of confidence and clarity.

You've almost certainly felt the negative effects of "putting on a good face" at work, despite what was happening around you and inside you.

A simple example at work

I wrote recently about a workshop with 550 engineers. We formed them into 110 groups of five people, and this time we tried something different: we started by asking them to list 10 facts about themselves. I offered my own example.

“Your facts can include things that describe you. For example, I live in New York City. I have five children. My wife is Japanese. I’m a vegetarian. My grandparents emigrated from Italy.
They can also be things you’ve experienced, both pleasant and unpleasant. I had a wonderful holiday in Provence. I was laid off. My mother was a diabetic.
List ten things that make you you.”

After a short period of reflection and list-making, we asked them to share some of their facts within their small groups, looking for connections and things they found remarkable. The energy in the room changed. It was no longer 550 engineers with specific titles in a big company. It was 550 human beings, each with their own story. The trust and interaction flowed more freely, more naturally.

There’s a longer version of this exercise in Week 5 of a Working Out Loud Circle. It’s called “So much to offer!” It’s there to help people experience that it’s okay to be yourself at work, that sharing who you are can be a kind of contribution, and the basis of a meaningful connection with someone.

We don’t need to shed our individuality when we come to the office. “People are our greatest asset” only if we let them be real people, only if we let ourselves be our true selves.

"Mask" by Henry Moore

"Mask" by Henry Moore

The Ripple Effect at Work

“Contagion will seep through almost any coordinated collection of people.”

When I first came upon that sentence, I had to stop and read it again. It’s from Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, a book about the neuroscience underpinning our social interactions. As evidence for his statement, he cited “simulations done in a now-classic study at Yale University.”

I had never heard of the study, so I looked it up. 

The Ripple Effect Study

The full title is “The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and Its Influence on Group Behavior.” The study was done by Sigal Barsade, and published in the Administrative Science Quarterly in 2002.

Participants were put in a room and told to act as managers on a salary committee that would allocate a pool of bonus money to their employees. There was no single leader in the group, but rather each person was representing a candidate from their division. They were give two “mixed-motive goals”:

  1. to obtain as large a bonus as possible for their candidate and 
  2. to aid the committee to make the best use of the available funds and maximize the benefit to the company as a whole.

What no one knew was that there was a seasoned actor in each group whose assignment was to be confrontational and downbeat in some groups and helpful and upbeat in others. The question was: how would the mood and energy of one participant affect the other members? How would it affect the process and the outcomes?

The results

I have been in exactly this situation, sitting in a room with colleagues allocating a bonus pool or deciding on promotions. It was supposed to be a systematic process based on each individual candidate’s merit. But in reality it was always a complex human calculus based on social capital (who had more influence) and aggression. My own experience was that these meetings could quickly become contentious and unproductive.

“This study showed that emotional contagion does occur in groups and inasmuch as emotional contagion changes people’s moods and serves as affective information, people are “walking mood inductors,” continuously influencing the moods and then the judgments and behaviors of others.”

Importantly, the contagion wasn’t limited to negative feelings. The study showed that “positive contagion” improved not only how the participant’s felt but also affected their process and their performance.

“There was a significant influence of emotional contagion on individual-level attitudes and group processes. As predicted, the positive emotional contagion group members experienced improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased perceived task performance.”

Daniel Goleman summarized it this way: 

“The feelings that pass through a group can bias how all the group members process information and hence the decisions they make.”

Like a pebble in a pond

The subtitle of Social Intelligence is “The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships.” The field of social neuroscience is providing evidence for what you may have already understood intuitively: how we approach work can influence how the people around us work and feel.

How might you apply this new science in your next meeting? How might you spread ripples of positive behavior at work, at home, and throughout your life?