Like Songs, Leaders Can Produce Earworms


I woke up today with an earworm. It’s driving me nuts.

No doubt you’ve experienced annoying earworms too. You know, that “little fragment, often a bit of the chorus of the song, that just plays and replays like it’s stuck on loop in your head,” explains Elizabeth Margulis, director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas and author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind.

Researchers have found that over 91% of us get a song stuck in our minds—earworms—at least once a week. The term “earworm” originally comes from a translation of the German word ‘Ohrwurm’.

If you’re a songwriter, earworms are the stuff of dreams. You want your song to stick in people’s minds. Songs like “What Does the Fox Say?” by Ylvis, and The Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out?” are tunes researchers say generate earworms. I’ve noticed that Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” seems to catalyze earworms in old and young alike.

But alas, (most) leaders are not songwriters. If we’re not careful, repetition of catchphrases or buzzwords become earworms that can blow our chance to inspire others or worse, close followers’ ears completely.

Earworms at Work

As an entry-level employee, I caught an earworm from the “big boss.” He used the phrase “the rubber meets the road” so often that it became fodder for endless snarky jokes throughout the large organization. Clocking out? Yeah, this rubber’s meeting the road. Trying to prioritize tasks? I can’t tell which road the rubber should meet. Numbers down? Eek, your rubber might meet the unemployment line!

images-1In her 2014 Atlantic article, Why Songs Get Stuck in Your Head, Elizabeth Margulis alerts us to the danger of earworms. She writes, “Verbatim repetitions can generate discomfort at the idea that our thoughts are products of some invisible, subconscious script.” 

Much like my experience with rubber meets the road, leadership-generated earworms can infect organizations with scripts that have no real meaning. They may even make people feel manipulated.

Recently, I spent the day with an organization that may have a widespread earworm. Employees repeatedly mentioned forming, storming, and norming, a catchphrase coined by Dr. Bruce Tuckman in 1965 to describe team development. I realized later that I never once heard the rest of that oft-cited phrase, “performing,” nor Tuckman’s later addition, “adjourning.” This set off alarm bells for me about  how well the organization functions.

Having produced annoying earworms as a leader myself, I cannot throw stones. I know how easily a dangerous earworm can trip off the tongue and take hold.

It became a running joke in one organization that I called every horrific challenge (and we had more than our fair share) “an opportunity.” While leading another organization, I forced myself to listen to a radio interview I’d done and found that I’d used the phrase “amazing opportunity” 17 times. (Shudder, cringe.)

Earworms Good News/Bad News?

Victoria Williamson is an authority on how music is processed by the brain, and the ways in which music impacts on our minds and behaviors. A noted earwormery researcher, Dr. Williamson shares what might be considered good news about earworms, “We’re more inclined to remember the things that annoy us.”

True, I remember rubber meets the road decades later and it still annoys me. I bet my former employees recall _58830338_ear_thinkstock224“opportunity” with irritation. (By the way, my earworm today is Pharrell Williams’ Happy, so at least my earworms tend to be positively inclined.)

Yet there’s real danger in earworms.

Earworm Project researchers say “most people tend to passively accept their earworms and let them fade out on their own, [but] a significant proportion of people also engaged in active coping strategies, with varying degrees of success. The most popular coping strategies were to engage with the earworm tune, often by listening to the full tune aloud, and distraction from the earworm tune, most commonly by using other music or verbal material.”

Leaders Be Aware

The earworms produced by songs may be more powerful because there’s music involved. However, I think I’m onto something here: Leaders who repeat the same catchphrases and buzzwords are uninspiring at best.

At worst, followers may become passive until you fade away when you use buzzwords-come-earworms with frequency. Similar to song-generated earworms, repetition of the latest catchphrase can cause followers to actively distract themselves. Want to annoy followers and/or make people feel manipulated? By all means, use a buzzword until its an earworm boring into people’s brains.

Take it from me, a recovering earworm producer, its critical as a leader to keep track of what you’re saying. Record yourself. Get feedback from a variety of sources. Your followers will thank you for not causing earworms. (I suspect you’ll have, and keep, more of them too).

Now it’s your turn, what earworms have you caught in the past from leaders? Do tell!



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