The Sorrows of Young Werther: Social contagion theory and social network analysis

Recently I facilitated a workshop, face to face, after almost a year. We did this in a nice offsite location and many people in the leadership team were lockdown joiners! The organisation is going through a massive change and interestingly many were not aware of the compelling change story, the possibilities and real intent behind this huge transformation journey. In those three days we were together, people had an opportunity to hear the story, the journey of the organisation so far and how the future might look like. 

You might wonder what is so great about people coming together for an offsite for three days and connecting with each other. In fact you would not take this so lightly if you knew about the social contagion phenomenon. 

I read the famous Malayalam novel Khasakinte Ithihasam (The legend of Khasak), written by O.V. Vijayan when I was 16 years old. The novel was published in 1969. The novel has anunderlying existentialist attitude and tells the story of a young university student Ravi, who leaves a promising future to take up a primary school teacher’s job in a remote village (Khasak). The novel ends with Ravi watching a snake that had struck him withdrawing into its hole. Ravi’s death symbolises the  existential question whether life is worth living or not. 

Needless to say the book had a huge impact on me and also influenced an entire generation and I did end up becoming a primary school teacher, like Ravi in the novel. Youngsters those days like kept long hair and beard, and often asked the existential question if life is worth living or not, just like Ravi did, in the novel. 

But almost two centuries ago Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a novel called 

The Sorrows of Young Werther, in 1774 where the young artist Werther takes his own life. Just after that, a wave of suicides swept across Europe almost like the spread of an infectious disease like COVID-19. Interestingly many of the suicide victims had read Johann von Goethe’s novel in which the commits suicide. The authorities then banned the book in several regions in Europe.

Social scientists have now confirmed the thesis that affect, attitudes, beliefs and behaviour can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious. Sometimes simple exposure appears to be enough for such social transmissions to occur. This is the social contagion thesis: that sociocultural phenomena can spread through, and leap between populations, much like an epidemic outbreaks viz. SARS or  COVID-19!

Now that many organisations have the “working from home” and “working from anywhere” norm, it might be worthwhile to explore how these conditions affect the social contagion phenomenon. 

The social contagion research can be broken down into two major areas, Emotional contagion and Behavioral contagion. I had noticed that in the initial months of lockdown, there was  melancholy, sadness, fear that affected many and the daily news that came to us through television and social media possibly increased that. Emotional contagion research looks at the spread of mood in populations by simple exposure while behavioral contagion looks at the spread of behaviours through populations. 

When we say something is going ‘viral‘, actually we are speaking about the spread of something, a video, a message, or person, in a manner that is more indicative of the spread of a pandemic rather than a rational adoption of that message. So the name viral!!   

As organisations today are ever evolving, changing, and adapting, how do we make sure important messages reach across to everyone in the organisation? The traditional townhalls and online straight talk sessions might not create the social contagion effect that is needed to change quickly. How do we make the leaders message go viral within an organisation? And how we leverage the emotional contagion concept and create the right mood in organizations?

This is where organisational network analysis could come handy. By analysing the informal networks of the organisation, we can figure out the acupuncture points in organisation that could possibly make a message go viral, or an emotion go viral, thus creating the escape velocity needed for change. 

As a leader you can think that the universe is made up of atoms or you could think that the universe is made up of stories . If you think the later; something that might be actually more useful to you, then you should explore social network analysis and social contagion theory. And if you are wondering how to make working from home or working from anywhere work better for you, I am sure you are already wondering how to map the networks in your organisations and make social contagion work for you.

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