Monday, May 13, 2013

Lifetime Lessons From Synchrony

Watching a young friend perform recently for the last time as part of her talented high school chorus in Durham, North Carolina where I live reminded me of a 1995 book by Dr. William H. McNeil, now a professor emeritus from the University of Chicago.

Entitled Keeping Together in Time : Dance and Drill in Human History,  McNeil wrote about the “emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison…” as a “cultural ritual” and “muscular bonding.”

Both were demonstrated as I watched last week but I am sure there was plenty of typical high school drama going on behind the scenes.  A 2009 organizational behavior analysis by researchers at Stanford University shed light on the relationship of this type of synchrony and cooperation.

Dr. Scott Wiltermuth is now at the University of Southern California and Dr. Chip Heath at Stanford but formerly at Duke University here in Durham, is with his brother Dan the co-author of several books including the just-published Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.

In their joint study entitled Synchrony and Cooperation, Wiltermuth and Heath concluded that “people acting in synchrony with others [such as the highly-choreographed chorus I saw] cooperated more…even in situations requiring personal sacrifice.”

The study also confirms why this cooperation did not entirely mitigate negative behind-the-scenes’ emotions that night such as shunning, bullying and cliquishness common in every high school and far too common in life as well.

The synchrony learned in chorus, athletics, orchestra, marching band, drama and many other endeavors at elementary and secondary schools are teaching skills as important as any of the AP and Honors classes many of the performers last week were completing prior to graduation.

Learning how to work together as a team, to synchronize, even with people you may not like or who may not like you on a personal level, is an incredibly vital workplace skill.  Synchronous activities in school also foster creativity and collaboration with people who have different styles.

The conflict I am characterizing as drama may be hurtful in high school but overall it is also a vital experience for the workplace as illustrated so eloquently in a TED presentation by Willful Blindness author and former CEO Margaret Heffernan entitled Dare To Disagree.

The inability to engage and resolve the conflict of ideas and concepts is often at the root of the inability of so many organizations to be effective.

But feeling “part of a whole” as New York University Business School ethics researcher Dr. Jonathan Haidt explains in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, doesn’t always require being in a festival atmosphere.

For much of the population it is one of the awe-inspiring by-products of nature.

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