Music at work increases cooperation, teamwork

January 19, 2020

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Music at work increases cooperation, teamwork

I find that when I’m working, I’m usually humming or whistling a tune that’s been around in my head for a while. Sometimes it’s classical, or from opera—Gilbert and Sullivan, Franz Lehar or Bizet usually—and at other times folk or country and western. I have often wondered about the relationship between music and work.

When I was living with hunter-gatherers, one of the things I noticed was that they sang as they worked together—not on the hunt, of course, but at all other times. Their drum beat (on a hollow log) is often something that I find myself tapping my finger to. Their working songs were almost always upbeat.

I’m not the only one to ponder the relationship between music and labor.  There have been many studies about it. But a paper which I read a little while ago about how music can improve teamwork recently sprang to mind.

A team of researchers explored the relationship between collaboration and music in a pair of lab experiments and found that music can have important effects on the cooperative spirits of those exposed to it.

In the paper published by the Journal of Organizational Behavior, the researchers describe two studies they conducted to test the effect of different types of music on the cooperative behavior of individuals working as a team.

For each study, participants were grouped into teams of three. Each team member was given multiple opportunities to either contribute to the team’s value using tokens or keep the tokens for personal use.

When happy, upbeat music was played—researchers chose the ‘Happy Days’ theme song, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ by Van Morrison, ‘Yellow Submarine’ by the Beatles and ‘Walking on Sunshine’ by Katrina and the Waves—team members were more likely to contribute to the group’s value. When music deemed unpleasant was played—in this case, heavy metal songs by less than well-known bands—participants were more likely to keep tokens for themselves. The researchers found higher contribution levels to the public good when happy, upbeat songs were played, compared to the less pleasant music.

When researchers conducted a second experiment testing how people react when no music is played, cooperation declined. The researchers conclude that happy music provokes people to more often make decisions that contribute to the good of the team.

What the researchers say: “Music is a pervasive part of much of our daily lives, whether we consciously notice it or not,” said the lead author on the paper. “Music might melt into the background in places like supermarkets or gyms and other times it’s very prominent like places of worship or presidential nominating conventions. Our results show that people seem more likely to get into sync with each other if they’re listening to music that has a steady beat to it.”

He added: “What’s great about these findings, other than having a scientific reason to blast tunes at work, is that happy music has the power to make the workplace more cooperative and supportive overall.”

“Lots of employers spend significant sums of time and money on off-site team building exercises to build cooperation among employees. Our research points to the office sound system as a channel that has been underappreciated as a way to inspire cooperation among co-workers,” said the researchers.

So, what? As I have mentioned before, previous studies such as this show that late homo erectus was capable of singing and we know that Neanderthals and Devonians had musical instruments. The key fact about all successful hominid species since the Australopithecus (our very early ancestors) was intensifying collaborative behavior. By late h. erectus we were building boats and venturing out to sea. This required collaborative behavior, speech and, most probably, music.

Music, most recent researchers believe, developed to enable mate selection, to promote cultural adhesion and to strengthen collaboration. And anything that benefited all of these would, of course have been selected by evolution and embedded in our genes.

The important point is, of course, that the employees should jointly choose the music to be played. I, for example, couldn’t collaborate with anyone if rap or heavy metal music (?) was playing—except to team up to stop the noise.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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