Donelson R. Forsyth: Magic can follow the workplace madness in March

March 17, 2014 

A modern mania is about to descend upon us: March Madness. Sixty-eight colleges and universities will send their basketball teams into a tournament that will end with one team recognized as national champion. And the other 67? All fails, but not major fails: This tournament is such a big deal that just qualifying gets you bragging rights.

March Madness undoubtedly will lead to lunacy for some fans. People will watch, which is fine unless they are supposed to be doing something else – driving trains, directing traffic, wiring a GFI circuit, proofing a million-dollar contract or running those budget numbers for the coming staff meeting.

Each year, Corporate America wonders at the tournament’s cost in productivity, as ever-diligent personnel are seduced into all kinds of distracting diversions: streaming the games, checking scores, wagering in office brackets, celebrating victories with too much relish (and libation) and meshing their Facebook statuses with their favorite team’s fortunes on the floor. (Challenger Gray & Christmas estimates 50 million Americans will participate in an office pool and that companies could lose $1.2 billion per hour in productivity the first week of the NCAA tournament.)

That’s a lot of money, but as efficiency experts in the old days of organizational charts and stop watches discovered, there is more to workplace productivity than time at task.

The gains March Madness yields, in terms of strengthened social and psychological relationships, might overshadow the minor losses of a few hours spent in the shared enjoyment of the tournament. The event is replete with rituals and traditions – collective acknowledgement of victory, celebration of the underdog, recognition of the fair play and competition – and when these rituals spill into the workplace they align the group, turning the parts into a whole. Such rituals are satisfying, strengthening interpersonal bonds and heightening camaraderie. March Madness can boost cohesion, providing for free what those teambuilding junkets often promise but don’t deliver.

March Madness also ramps up workplace energy. Napoleon said it was not the skill of his troops, but their emotional intensity that counted most in battle. Famed sociologist Durkheim called it collective effervescence: the emotional flow that helps people who are working together pursue their tasks with vigor.

The NCAA tournament is exciting, dramatic, compelling; it might provide just the push needed to get that difficult job done or wrap up that one last detail on a long, painful project. Whatever the “loss” in productivity, is it too much to pay to push back the doldrums of March with a bit of collective effervescence?

There are dangers associated with March Madness that shouldn’t be minimized, and these problems are more likely if people get carried away. The tournament can bring out the fanatics. People who show excessive emotional investment in a team’s outcome allow themselves to become too closely connected to teams and pay a psychological cost. If the office runs a pool, it might be illegal depending on the locale – for example, betting on the game is banned in all federal agencies. Some have even suggested the simple office pool can be a gateway to more serious forms of gambling addiction. Sometimes, too, rivalries between teams can create conflicts between fans. Duke fans, for example, rarely keep their preferences to themselves in March.

Even with these costs, March Madness promises to give more than it takes. The NCAA Tournament is a grand spectacle that creates excitement without violence, a sense of community without outcasts, and disagreements that do not devolve into conflicts. If workplace success depends only on how many hours are logged at the task, then it makes sense to block those game feeds and ban those office brackets.

But if success is linked to such interpersonal processes as cohesion, positive collective emotions and efficacy, and honest communication, then there might be a method to this March Madness.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Forsyth teaches ethical leadership at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

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