Leading Organisational Nocebo Effect

In a previous post we discussed the idea that some of the time poor mindset we tend to operate from is a product of the nocebo effect. The nocebo effect is the opposite of the placebo effect. While the placebo effect is when the suggestion of possible positive benefits results in positive outcomes, the nocebo effect is where the suggestion of negative outcomes results in more negative outcomes.

Leaders Influence Followers' Attitudes © Alphaspirit | Dreamstime.com

Leaders Influence Followers’ Attitudes
© Alphaspirit | Dreamstime.com

Thinking about the possibility that the nocebo effect exaggerates the sense of being too busy and contributes to the rushed way in which we can tend to deal with questions, challenges, and decision making, opened the door for thought about where else the nocebo effect may be exaggerating or creating enhanced negative outcomes in organisations.

The nocebo effect exaggerates negatives

An example of this in the school context might be the emotional and physical responses I have observed in teachers as the end of year school holidays approach. Teacher tiredness, sense of busyness, and degree of emotional exhaustion, seem to increase exponentially as the end of the school year approaches. While it is true that it is a very busy time of the year for teachers, the degree to which teachers feel exhausted and begin to long for the holidays to come, is not directly proportional to the increase in work load and demands. Teachers are also tired and exhausted in the approach to the end of the first semester. However, the levels of tiredness etc. are significantly higher towards the end of the school year. I believe the nocebo effect is very much at play in teachers at this busy time of the year.

Evidence of the nocebo effect at work can be seen in the changes in the language being used in the staff room and on verandahs in the school. Tiredness and busyness become common topics of conversation. References to the coming break, in terms of the relief they will be, increase. I wonder how much this sense of longing for a break, the idea that they are expected to be busy, stressed and tired at this time of year, and the anticipation of the coming relief, actually increase the stress and tiredness teachers experience. It is a negative self fulfilling prophecy. We should be tired – therefore we are tired.

Nocebo effect is sometimes a negative self fulfilling prophecy

I know it is a potentially controversial suggestion that teachers are more tired and stressed at the end of the year than they ought to be, as a result of the nocebo effect. I am not trying to diminish the hard work teachers put in at this time. I am simply trying to provoke thought about where in your team, or organisation, the nocebo effect may be working against your objectives. Behind the scenes the nocebo effect may be contributing to reduced positive outcomes or enhancing negative ones. I believe it is worth some thought.

The language leaders use impacts on others. The attitude leaders express impacts on others. The posture leaders choose to adopt towards a situation or issue affects the way others feel and respond. Some leaders in schools potentially contribute to the nocebo effect of approaching holidays by adding a countdown of ‘sleeps to go’ in emails. Is it possible that something intended as a light hearted participation in counting down to holidays might actually increase the degree staff believe they should feel tired and stressed? I think it is.

Positive or Negative? It is your Choice! © Xtheft | Dreamstime.com

Positive or Negative? It is your Choice!
© Xtheft | Dreamstime.com

The language chosen by leaders can make the difference…positive or negative

The language leaders use when working through problems will influence the attitude of others. Sometimes the impact is obvious. More often it is very subtle. I do not advocate an artificially positive approach to challenges. Team members see through this approach very easily. I am suggesting leaders we can be completely transparent about the extent and degree of difficulty a problem presents the team and yet use a language of enthusiasm and optimism about the possible outcomes.

This is not something which can be faked for any length of time. When a leader knows they are contributing to a greater good. When they know the vision of the organisation or team is worth the effort, and when they are helping others be the best they can be, they can take an authentic positive orientation into every challenge. It doesn’t matter how difficult it may be. It is this authentic optimism which can counter the nocebo effect. The momentum created by a leaders choice of language can turn it into a placebo!

Worth some thought as it applies to your leadership, your team, and your organisation? I think so.

Tell me what you think – write a comment – enter the conversation.


  • The nocebo effect is a psychological response to the suggestion of possible negative outcomes
  • Thinking about where the nocebo effect may be at work in your team or organisation is a worthwhile exercise for leaders
  • The language leaders choose in dealing with challenges and problems will make a difference
  • Leaders can deliberately turn nocebo into placebo – enhancing positives and negating the increase in negatives

Additional Resources

The Other Side of the Placebo Effect
The Nocebo Effect: Can our Thoughts Kill us?
Negative Leadership: The Nocebo Effect