Ron Friedman, Ph.D.

Ron Friedman Ph.D.


Mimicry, Motivation, and How Company Culture Gets Built One Face at a Time

Why employee motivation is contagious.

Posted Aug 29, 2012

If you’ve received an shipment over the past few days, you may want to proceed with caution. Your brain has been unconsciously primed.

Printed along the side of Amazon’s ubiquitous cardboard boxes is its brand logo, featuring the company name above an arrow connecting the letters A and Z. It’s designed to convey the store’s broad selection of products, but it also serves another very clever and somewhat surreptitious purpose.

Grab an Amazon box out of the recycling bin and take a closer look. You’ll notice that the arrow beneath Amazon is curved, and that the tip is slightly angled. Together, these features lend the logo an unmistakable resemblance to an object our minds find captivating--the human face. Although you may not have recognized it until now, for years, your brain has been associating the Amazon brand with a smile.

The design of Amazon’s logo doesn’t just communicate a strong corporate identity. It makes good business sense. Our minds are wired to mimic facial expressions—whether we perceive them in person, on a television screen or on a cardboard box—so when we see a smile we’re more likely to smile ourselves. This tendency to imitate expressions is one reason comedies seem funnier when viewed in movie theaters and sporting events are more exciting when we’re sitting in the stands. Emotions are contagious. The more people we see expressing a particular feeling, the more likely we are to adopt it ourselves, amplifying it in the process.

Mimicry is just one of the many unconscious tasks our mind performs while we’re busy attending to other things. Like a mental app running in the background of our consciousness, it’s designed to serve an important purpose.

Consider what happens when you meet a major client.

While your conscious attention may be focused on listening attentively and saying the right things, your unconscious mind is performing a series of mental calculations designed to improve your chances of connecting. Which is why during your best meetings, you’ll find yourself unintentionally mimicking a client’s posture, mirroring their head movements, and adopting a comparable level of vocabulary.

We’re programmed to imitate because doing so helps us feel in sync with one another—a hallmark of stable relationships. If you smile and I smile, we both experience a surge of endorphins and serotonin that chemically enhances our mood, lowers our blood pressure and reduces our stress levels. This brief exchange makes it more likely we’ll stick together, pool our resources and perhaps even mate. Evolutionarily, it’s this bonding instinct that’s helped our species survive.

The tendency to imitate is a powerful force in our lives, influencing us in more ways than we recognize. Take, for example, research I conducted with motivational experts at the University of Rochester, calling attention to the way workplace colleagues influence employee performance. In a series of experiments published in Motivation and Emotion, we found that simply placing participants in the same room as a highly motivated individual improved their motivation and enhanced their performance. But when we paired participants with a less motivated individual, their motivation dwindled and their performance dropped.

Surprisingly, when we asked participants if their performance had been influenced by the person working in their room, they said absolutely not. The effect had, in other words, occurred unconsciously.

We call this motivational synchronicity and argue that it’s a byproduct of the way our brains have evolved. By unconsciously mimicking the motivation of those around us, we better relate to one another—a useful habit in the evolutionary past, when belonging to a group could mean the difference between life and death.

The challenge is that this tendency to synchronize our motivation to those around us isn’t always beneficial in workplace settings, especially when we’re collaborating with colleagues who are not a positive influence.

Because we are born to emulate the motivation and emotions of those around us, negative colleagues can have a detrimental impact not just on our attitudes--but on our performance as well. In the studies we conducted, participants performed worse when they were seated next to an unmotivated officemate, even when they avoided verbal communication and worked on completely different tasks.

Which brings us to the ripple effect that naturally occurs inside large organizations. Hiring a single person whose motivation detracts from your company culture can have a dramatic impact because of the way our minds are programmed. Within our studies, all it took for motivation to spread between people was 5 minutes of exposure.

The impact of motivational synchronicity is arguably greatest in organizations that rely on creativity and problem solving to succeed. As anyone working in an ideas-driven industry knows, groundbreaking insights don’t just appear. They require a particular state of mind—one of openness, curiosity and exploration. Creativity is a lot easier to stifle than it is to nurture, and in an economy fueled by innovation, fostering the right blend of workplace interactions has become a major contributor to the bottom line.

There’s another way of thinking about the influence of workplace mimicry—one that highlights just how important it is for each of us to seek out not just a great job but a great workplace. The people we work with shape our thoughts, influence our creative thinking and ultimately determine the quality of our work. By choosing to spend the majority of our waking hours with a particular set of people, we are not only determining the tenor of our daily experiences, we are defining the person we will eventually become.

Which is why it’s ironic that we often base career decisions on a narrow set of criteria like title and salary. Sure, we eventually get around to considering the people we’ll be working with, but too often it’s not until after we’ve started a new job.

If research on motivational synchronicity has revealed anything it is this: Our colleagues (unconsciously) influence us in more ways than we recognize.

Choose wisely.

Copyright Ron Friedman.

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