What do hymns, Comic-Con and protests have in common?

28 Jul 2017
Collective Effervescence Arrow People

Think back to the euphoric moments you have experienced in your life. Did many of them involve a crowd? Collective effervescence is a sociological concept introduced by Émile Durkheim who proposed that, when a community comes together to participate in a synchronised action or experience, the group becomes more unified and individuals become disproportionately excited.

Although Durkheim’s thesis came from observing religious rituals, he suggested that it is a fundamentally social phenomenon – as relevant to a church’s singing congregation as it is to a group of protestors, a crowd of dancers at a music festival, a stadium of sports fans, or a team celebrating after winning a pitch.

These moments might be special to us because they fulfil our human need for belonging to a cohesive collective. So special, in fact, that – if you get the rallying point right – people are moved to buy tickets, drive for hours, camp overnight and more, to join in. Similar behaviours are relevant to places of work, and serve to illustrate how strongly we seek to be part of a collective and how vested we can feel in that momentum. This can be a very powerful and positive force for a business.

Jonathan Haidt talks about this phenomenon of “self-transcendence”, when the sense of self melts away into something greater, in his TED Talk. He talks about Darwin’s theory of ‘group selection’, arguing that, although losing our self-centredness may seem evolutionarily counter-intuitive or even impossible, it actually makes a huge amount of sense in the context of competing tribes, societies or groups of any kind. For example, Haidt identifies several instances when populations or species of animal which have survived and ultimately thrived as a result of being more cohesive than their competition. So, he argues, self-transcendence is often a natural instinct, rather than something driven by altruism. 

Similarly, when an organisational or team identity is strong and relevant enough, individuals will prize it over their short-term self-interest – choosing to compete instead with the market, other organisations, external benchmarks, etc. 

While team-building experiences and awaydays can very quickly capitalise on collective effervescence, the challenge is more often in maintaining the momentum when everyone gets back to their desk. This requires a more complex, ongoing solution which may involve anything from workshops to values, from individual actions plans to a revised organisational vision. The aim for organisations isn’t simply to achieve localised effervescence (during a company retreat, for example), it’s about understanding what exactly is causing the feeling of ‘something greater’ and finding ways to recreate and nourish this effervescence in the absence of a supportive crowd.

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