I was reminded of the importance of anxiety and the idea of emotional contagion the other day when I sat with a group of not-for-profit trustees who were being given a presentation by an auditor from a big corporate firm of accountants. The auditor had been asked to present on his experience of auditing other not-for-profits to identify what other organisations were concerned about and how they were dealing with it. The trustees saw it as a way of ‘benchmarking’ the field so that they could be reassured that they were focusing on the right things as they undertook their roles and developed a new strategy.
What transpired in the meeting made me think about how certain ideas about leadership and management are spread partly because they have emotional valency, and thus are more likely to be taken up without being challenged. For the presentation was not just an overview of the sector but also carried a strong ideological message wrapped in an anxiety narrative. This was that adopting a particular approach to organisations and management based on an especially dominant orthodoxy is a way of belonging to an in-group in especially turbulent times. To emulate others would mean ameliorating anxiety about not keeping up, not being professional and not being alongside the people who really know.
Just to back up a bit, the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal has studied the way that emotion can be transferred from one mammal to the rest of a group, playing a very important role in the group life of mammals (like us humans). In his extended reflection on empathy he explores how troupes of baboons, or mobs of meerkats can pick up and amplify the strong feelings of one of their number. So a spooked meerkat on sentry duty, or a distressed baboon can quickly call out a strong resonating emotion in others in the group. Such an ability has an important role for the survival of the group. The difficulty for mammals without a theory of mind, ie those without the psychological capacity to take the perspective of others as elephants and bonobos can, is that they are unable to know what to do about the contagious emotion except get distressed as well (and perhaps flee for safety). De Waal gives a number of examples where mammals do have the ability to recognise and empathise with the distress of others in their group and go on to do something about it. In other words, bonobos can take a perspective on the situation others are in, and relate it to their own. This gives them the option not just of picking up and amplifying the emotion but of doing something practical about it.
So, to return to the presentation, the auditor presented sensitively and intelligently but nonetheless soon resorted to the usual tropes and taken-for-granted assumptions about change and the way organisations should be managed. For example, he told the group of trustees that ‘remaining with the status quo is not an option’, that the organisation would need to transition from management to leadership, and that they should concentrate on being as strategic as possible ‘going forward’. The idea that change was an urgent and unavoidable necessity was publically accepted by the group without demur, irrespective of what they might have been thinking privately. That there was a difference between leadership and management, that we would recognise it when we saw it and could consciously change from one to the other was equally unchallenged publically and taken as given.
Producing a variety of four by four grids and frameworks, the auditor encouraged the trustees to ensure that they drove their organisation from ‘threshold performance to leading edge’. They needed to make sure that every aspect of what they were doing was ‘best in class’ and he promised to show them what to concentrate on to make it so: aptitude, core competences, values and skills base. The first thing to focus on would be a ‘skills audit’ of the board itself. And although these were trustees who responsible for a not-for-profit organisation, the terms ‘business’, ‘business strategy’ and ‘business model’ were liberally sprinkled throughout the presentation. It was a given that everyone in the room was responsible for a business, that there was a ‘class’ that they could be best in, and that they could measure and improve performance towards identified business ends.
Next came the most alarming slide of all which related to the management of risk, which was elided by the auditor with the idea of uncertainty. The auditor showed a tabular risk management grid with criteria on the left hand side and risk factors along the bottom so that the grid could be completed. This particular example seemed to have an enormous number hatched in distressing shades or red which even made me, an independent outsider, begin to panic. A number of the squares related to financial management, which in many organisations has become a dominating preoccupation. To be fair to the auditor, he also encouraged the trustees not to be risk-averse, given that opportunities and innovations also arise out of risk. However, he didn’t point out that the biggest risks to organisations often come from uncertainty: what we don’t know that we don’t know.
There were a number of threads to this anxiety narrative which threatens by emotional contagion: there is an imperative for change, leadership is the answer, trustees must measure, control, drive up standards, worry about money, stay focused until they are best in class. Above all they must be strategic, whatever that means.
It is easy to see how a group of trustees would come away from such a meeting feeling relieved that they had been given a sharp lesson in the way the world works, and had been given some insights into how others were tackling similar problems to their own. They might have emerged paradoxically both anxious and gratified at the same time. The whole presentation was as much an emotional as an intellectual experience and gave me some insights into how dominant ideas come to dominate. It made me also realise the importance of perspective-taking as a potential escape route from simply copying everyone else through emotional contagion. That’s the way others might see it, but how does the world look from where we are standing?
 De Waal, F. (2009) The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, London: Souvenir Press.