Walking On Sunshine: Happy Music Linked To Employee Cooperation

DJ equipment. via Anderson Mancini/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
DJ equipment. via Anderson Mancini/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Photo of Nadia Elysse
Us Editorial Team Lead12 July 2017

Picture this: It’s 2:00pm in your fluorescently-lit office and, after five hours of work, everyone’s deafeningly quiet. You’re drained and definitely not looking forward to your afternoon group brainstorming session. That’s when your boss bursts in the room with huge speakers blaring the 1983 hit ‘Walking on Sunshine’ and the whole team gets up, doing a flashmob-style dance complete with spirit fingers.

To be fair, this dramatic scene isn’t exactly what researchers at Cornell University had in mind when they looked at how music influences workplace cooperation. In findings published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, researchers Kevin Kniffin, Jubo Yan, Brian Wansink and William Schulze concluded that happy music enhances employee collaboration and acts as a “social lubricant,” easing the creation of social bonds.

“What is great about these findings, other than having a scientific reason to blast tunes at work, is that happy music has the power to make the workplace more cooperative and supportive overall,” Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, told Business Standard.

Whether you know it or not, music follows you throughout your day and influences everything from your mood to your shopping experience. Companies do extensive research on the types of music that make customers happier, more likely to spend, and more likely to linger in a store longer. But, as the authors of this study found, there’s been very little research on how music impacts employee behavior.

“Music might melt into the background in places like supermarkets or gyms and other times it’s very prominent like places of worship or presidential nominating conventions,” lead author Kniffin told the Cornell Chronicle. “Our results show that people seem more likely to get into sync with each other if they’re listening to music that has a steady beat to it.”

Researchers conducted two experiments on 188 participants — 75 women and 113 men. In the first experiment, the researchers divided 78 participants into groups of three. Each group was given tokens and the option to contribute the tokens to the group or keep the tokens for themselves. When the participants listened to traditionally “happy” music, which included familiar songs like Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and Katrina and The Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine,” they were more likely to contribute their tokens to the group. When they listened to less familiar heavy metal tunes, participants were more likely to keep the tokens for themselves.

In the second experiment, participants listened to happy music and no music at all. Under those circumstances, participants were again more likely to contribute to the group when they listened to upbeat music.

Researchers say these findings are particularly important because organizations tend to do well when employees work together to bring ideas to fruition. Team-building exercises and events are great, but what if companies could just turn on some great tunes?

“Lots of employers spend significant sums of time and money on off-site teambuilding exercises to build cooperation among employees. Our research points to the office sound system as a channel that has been underappreciated as a way to inspire cooperation among co-workers,” said Kniffin.