Hysteria through the ages

Many years ago in a French convent, a nun started meowing like a cat. Although strange in itself the stranger part is that, soon after, the rest of the convent joined in. At certain times of the day, the group would meow together for hours and this eventually started to annoy the nearby residents. When soldiers were sent to the convent to address the hysteria the nuns stopped the unusual behaviour.

The New England Journal of Medicine documented a case in 1998 where a teacher in Tennessee noticed a weird, gassy, chemical odour, and quickly started suffering overt physical symptoms. Soon after, 180 students and teachers had to go to A&E with the same symptoms. After an extensive investigation, no physical reason was found for this behaviour.

Both of these examples have been defined as examples of ‘collective hysteria.

This is a condition affecting a group of persons, characterised by excitement or anxiety, irrational behaviour or beliefs, or inexplicable symptoms of illness.

The nocebo effect

A lot of them start as the result of the ‘nocebo effect’. This is almost the opposite of the placebo effect in that someone if believes something negative is going to happen then there is a good chance it will. Sceptics would say that this is rubbish, although it does have medical backing. For example, studies have found that those that believe they have a greater chance of heart disease were 4 times more likely to die from it. The important point to note that the only difference between the groups were their beliefs.

Beliefs are everything

The impact on leadership and ultimately teams in regards to these principles is actually far reaching. Although we may not have organisations collectively meowing at their planning meetings, we may get to a point where the beliefs of the organisation may dramatically impact on it.

Nocebo at work

An example of the nocebo effect is where there’s a rampant belief that senior management is looking for even the smallest excuses to let people go. Conversations are dominated by this and individuals are fearful of making any decision just in case they lose their job. Ultimately it is having a significantly negative impact on the culture of the business. This ‘thought pattern’ has to start somewhere and radiate out quickly to the rest of the team and no matter what points are put forward to suggest that this could be an assumption, the only response is aggressive behaviours to hold onto the present beliefs.

When senior managers are approached, they are unaware of where this rumour started and flatly deny it is true. When asked, individuals are unable to provides examples of this behaviour, yet they still strongly believe it to be true.

While these are extreme examples of the impact that beliefs can have on teams, it brings forward the importance of how leaders can (and do) influence beliefs and therefore culture in their organisations.

CEO awareness

Therefore, leaders have to be acutely aware of the messages they send. If a trusted leader comments, “There is going to be months of hardship because of this change”, this could easily turn into a belief that adds stress and discomfort to the organisation. The CEO could have easily have said, “This team has the tools and the ability to deal with this change”—sparking a completely different cultural response.

Collective hysteria is alive and well within organisations. Leaders with a heightened awareness of this will craft and deliver every message carefully.