Management literature is rife with advice on how to engage teams of workers in their tasks, how to get teams to cooperate, and how to build cultural identity as a company. Historically, humans have used group rhythmic tasks to solidify affiliation in religious, cultural, and military settings (Wiltermuth & Heath, 2009). Traditional team-building approaches have focused largely on the content or style rather than the form of team-building exercises (Midura & Glover, 2005), but new research in the shared leadership model of team dynamics suggests that formal elements that promote cognitive fluency - or "flow" - between team members produce more innovative results and heighten trust within a team (Makowski & Breman, 2008). Research on fluency shows that it is a key element in building rapport and effective shared leadership (Hooker & Czikszentmihalyi, 2003; Wiltermuth & Heath, 2009). This research probes the question: is rhythmic entrainment a better way to induce fluency, or a feeling of "flow" in interactions, than other methods?
This paper will propose an experimental test of rhythmic entrainment as a way to promote fluency above and beyond traditional non-rhythmic team-building tasks. First, I will explore previous literature on fluency/flow, rapport, coordination, and team leadership. Since the psychological literature on fluency has not been fully explored in organizational management circles, I will devote some time to explaining how the concept of flow is crucial to understanding successful interactions within organizations. Fluent experience is especially helpful in teams whose goals are innovative and creative, and in which a non-hierarchical or flexibly hierarchical leadership model is adopted. I will then describe an experiment that pits traditional team-building exercises aimed at increasing trust and strengthening a shared leadership model against a variant that subtly incorporates a rhythmic entrainment phase. My analysis will incorporate qualitative and quantitative outcomes derived from tasks, surveys, and a sociomap of the studied group. In my measures, I will focus on the flexibility of authority roles within the team, the growth of trust between team members, and the creativity and efficiency of their problem solutions. I will explain the resources needed for this experiment, including participants, experimental personnel, technology needs, coding, timeline, budget, and any prospective assurances or clearances needed (e.g. from the university's Institutional Research Board or a participating company). With this experiment, I hope to show the cost-effective benefit of adding a simple entrained rhythmic component to team-building exercises.
Previous research on flow in groups has been both theoretical and experimental. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Theory and Daniel Oppenheimer's Subjective Fluency Theory provide bases for the experimental intuition that flow, fluency, or that quality of experience associated with ease is central to how interactions are carried out. Separately, research on rhythmic entrainment suggests that it is as central to human experience as flow is, and may in fact be a related - or at least contributing - phenomenon (Rogers, 1994). Empirical research in this area ranges from developmental studies of the impact of rhythmic music on helping behavior and problem solving (Kirschner & Tomasello, 2008) to studies examining the impact of walking in step on choice behavior in group economic games (Wiltermuth & Heath, 2009). Team Flow Theory, which grows out of Flow Theory through organizational behavior dynamics, proposes a detailed description of teams that experience flow, which I will discuss with respect to issues like coordination and synchrony that arise in the entrained rhythm literature.
Flow is described as "a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand." It became popular with the publication of Czikszentmihalyi's monograph on the topic in 1990, and still inspires popular authors like Malcolm Gladwell, whose "tipping point" theory can be interpreted as "Flow writ large" - the dynamics of flow on a population or organizational level. Flow is unconscious, although there are many articles and manuals devoted to teaching the reader how to intentionally achieve it in order to raise personal effectiveness on the job or in daily life. Czikszentmihalyi writes that flow is particularly prevalent in, and essential to, high-functioning teams in which a shared leadership model is used (Hooker & Czikszentmihalyi, 2003). He argues that flow augments motivation and creative outcomes, and operates well within a shared leadership structure. This structure lends itself to interconnected streams of knowledge, responsibility, and authority that are highly efficient in producing creative outcomes for temporary projects or problems. A fluid shared leadership model would not take root in a traditional Fortune 500 company except in certain divisions or departments, for example. And while flow can be a useful concept for any individual or group wishing to optimize performance, organizational restructuring with flow in mind is only appropriate in select cases.
The concept of fluency arises from literature in psychology addressing different types of fluency. In a recent review of the field, Alter and Oppenheimer write that the "tribes of fluency" should be united under one general banner for easier study. Some varieties of fluency are "objective" - for example, reading in a font color that contrasts cleanly with the background is a more fluent experience than reading in a font color that resembles or clashes with the background (Oppenheimer & Frank, 2007). However, these forms are less relevant to the Flow construct. I will be mainly concerned with what Alter and Oppenheimer term "subjective fluency": the experience of fluent action whether or not it reflects the objective ease with which conceptual or perceptual data is processed. Subjective fluency and flow are intuitively connected - flow could be re-described as a consistent, self-reinforcing sequence of fluent experiences. Fluency has basic cognitive benefits for processing and memory, but it also has implications for interactions between people. Social psychologists call the positive feeling that is built between individuals over time "rapport"; it greases the wheels of conversation and makes interactions more fluent. If subjective fluency is the cognitive backdrop for the state of flow, then increasing fluency should also positively affect the state of rapport, a feeling of ease that can lead participants to believe they are "on the same page" or "in sync" with each other. In groups or dyads, this should mean that fluent interactions can both build group rapport and lead to a profound sense of group flow. The way this fluency -> rapport -> flow process affects teams' productivity and creativity, however, remains to be seen.
Previous research suggests that physical coordination, particularly rhythmic coordination, has a number of benefits for human interactions. Within interactions, coordinated mimicry, or mirroring, noticeably improves rapport and creates a feeling of liking in the partner being mirrored. Simple physical actions like walking in step or passing a cup from left to right at the same time can promote a greater feeling of liking, more cooperative behavior, and even greater trust among group members. Research conducted by Wiltermuth and Heath showed that specific rhythmic actions - walking in step, passing a cup from left to right, and singing at the same tempo - were related to making a more cooperative choice in a public-goods game, and also with higher ratings of closeness and trust (Wiltermuth & Heath, 2009). Unfortunately, the walking-in-step condition was poorly designed: half the participants were told to walk in step, while the other half were not given any instructions. Other research has shown that humans fall into synchronous walking patterns automatically, a phenomenon known as "frequency locking." The authors did not report the rate at which "asynchronous" groups fell into frequency-locked walking patterns, so it is impossible to tell the degree to which the groups' rhythmic behavior actually differed. Given the chance to replicate this study or reanalyze Wiltermuth and Heath's data, I might measure the speed at which groups fell into step with each other, within a close margin of error, and see if that speed was as good a predictor of cooperative behavior and liking as simple instruction-group membership. It also suggests a fluency interpretation for the cooperativity data: groups who were told to walk in step were given a trivially easy task which they could all accomplish fluently, which may have given rise to a feeling of belonging (e.g. To a group that is consciously "in sync") that affected later social behaviors and assessments.
Another study that touches on both rhythm and problem solving comes from the developmental literature. Kirschner and Tomasello conducted a study in which 5- to 7-year-old children participated in one of two directed play scenarios, and then followed by participating in several paired problem solving games (Kirschner & Tomasello, 2009). The difference between the directed play scenarios was rhythmic entrainment: in one scenario, children were instructed to play with and say hello to several toy frogs presented to them; in the second, they were directed to sing a song about the frogs and use them as percussive musical instruments. The problem solving games were meant to provoke cooperative behavior between children, and involved several simple mechanical puzzles in which collaboration solved the problem faster than independent behavior. The…