March Madness or Magic?
Our ancestors must have been most unusual to let themselves get caught up in collective crazes. When dancing mania broke out in Italy in the 10th century spontaneous and improvised dancing spread like the flu from one community to the next. Then there was the alarming outbreak of biting mania in the 15thcentury, which was just what it sounds like: people took to biting one another. The 17th century’s tulipmania was only economically painful, with many Dutch investors sinking too much of their savings into tulip bulbs futures. When the price of bulbs plummeted unexpectedly many were left in financial ruin.
But perhaps we are not so different from those long-gone dancers, biters, and tulipophiles, for a modern mania is about to descend upon us: March Madness. Sixty-eight colleges and universities will send their basketball teams into a tournament that will end with one team recognized as the National Champion. With so many teams from towns and cities across the nation the tournament awakens a hive-mind consciousness as millions become immersed in the collective experience. As teams move forward in the tournament, facing new challenges and hopefully overcoming them, fans aren’t just spectators; they are drawn into the fray, and their team’s outcomes become as important to them as their own successes and failures.
March Madness will undoubtedly lead to a loss of rationality for some of us. Fans will cheer their teams on, which is fine unless they are supposed to be doing something else—driving trains, directing traffic, wiring a GFI circuit, or proof-reading a million-dollar contract. Each year corporate America wonders at the tournament’s cost in terms of lost productivity, as ever-diligent personnel are seduced into all kinds of distracting diversions: streaming the games, checking scores, wagering in office brackets, celebrating victories with too much relish (and libation), and meshing their Facebook status with their favorite team’s fortunes on the floor. Millions, even billions, might be lost say the productivity experts.
That’s a lot of money, no doubt, but as the efficiency experts of the old days of organizational charts and stop watches discovered, there is more to workplace productivity than time at task. The gains March Madness yields, in terms of strengthened social relationships and psychological well-being, may overshadow the minor losses of a few hours spent in the shared enjoyment of the tournament. The tournament is replete with rituals and traditions—collective acknowledgement of victory, celebration of the underdog, recognition of fair play and competition—and when these rituals spill into the workplace they align the group, turning the parts into a whole. Such rituals are strangely satisfying, for they strengthen interpersonal bonds and heighten camaraderie. Historian William McNeill (1995) argues that it was the cohesiveness of the Roman legions that ensured their success, and that they achieved this unity by marching together as one. March Madness is our modern equivalent of drilling in formation, providing for free what those silly teambuilding exercises so often promise but can’t deliver.
March Madness also ramps up the energy of the workplace. Napoleon said it was not the skill of his troops, but their emotional intensity, that counted most in battle. Sociologist Emile Durkheim called it collective effervescence: the emotional flow that helps people who are working together pursue their tasks with vigor. But it’s March: Will winter ever end? Why can’t we go on spring break like we did in college? How long has it been since we got a long holiday? The NCAA tournament is exciting, dramatic, compelling; it may provide just the push needed to get that difficult job done or wrap up that one last detail on a long, painful project. Are a few million dollars too much to pay to push back the doldrums of March with a bit of collective effervescence?
There are dangers associated with March Madness and these problems are more likely if people get carried away by the experience. The tournament may bring out the fanatic in the sports fan. People who show excessive emotional investment in a team’s outcome allow themselves to become too closely connected to teams, and pay a psychological cost. The office pool may be illegal depending on the locale—for example, betting on the game is banned in all federal agencies. Some have even suggested that bracket betting can be a gateway to more serious forms of gambling addiction. Sometimes, too, rivalries between teams can create rivalries between fans. Mixing together Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill fans often provides an opportunity to practice conflict resolution skills.
But even with these costs, March Madness promises to give more than it takes. When researchers at Robert Morris University (Smith & Smith, 2011; Smith, Smith, & Offodile, 2011) surveyed office workers about the tournament, many admitted that they watched games during company time, but that (a) the tournament’s diversion was just one more diversion among many, (b) the tournament boosted productivity in the long-run by enhancing workplace satisfaction, and (c) outlawing tournament activities was a sure way to cause a backlash that would really harm productivity.
Yes, March Madness cuts into the workday. But the NCAA tourney is a grand spectacle than creates excitement without violence, a sense of community without outcasts, disagreements that do not devolve into conflicts, and failure without its usual sting. If success in the workplace depends only on how many hours are logged at the task, then it makes sense to block those game feeds and ban those office bracket pools. But if success is linked to such interpersonal processes as cohesion, positive collective emotions and efficacy, and honest communication, then there may be a method to this March Madness after all.
McNeill, W. H. (1995). Keeping together in time: Dance and drill in human history. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Smith, A. A., & Smith, A. D. (2011). March Madness, office gambling, and work place productivity issues: An empirical study. Sport, Business, and Management: An International Journal, 1(2), 190-206. DOI 10.1108/20426781111146772
Smith, A. A., Smith, A. D., & Offodile, O. F. (2011). March Madness and perceived influence on workplace productivity by business professionals: An exploratory study. Sport, Business, and Management: An International Journal, 1(1), 43-60. DOI 10.1108/20426781111107162