Workplace Rituals Matter

February 18, 2021

Why Rituals Matter In The Workplace (& Still Do Even If You’ve Gone Remote)

We all have small rituals in our lives that help us get through the day and stay healthy. Whether it may be taking the time to workout or enjoying a private moment with a cup of coffee, these routines enhance our mental—and physical—health. But as we approach one full year of drastically altered routines, the ritual of going to and from work has become one many of us took for granted.  Even little gestures helped establish a sense of belonging in the workplace, develop solidarity, and encourage organizational progress from decent to fantastic. In our "hyper-productive" culture, it can be easy to see rituals as optional, or economic waste. However, rituals have significant potential to increase motivation and create shared identities within the workplace.

What separates our habits from our rituals? Purpose.

Rituals, a set of acts carried out in a particular manner, have been part of human life for millennia. They're not habits at all. According to psychologists, the inherent purpose of a habit is distinct from that of a ritual. With habit, the actions are causally related to the desired result; for example, brushing our teeth to avoid cavities and gum disease. Rituals, on the other hand, are "demoted targets," which means that their acts do not have a key relationship to the result. For instance, we sing "Happy Birthday" to the same tune even though it's not related to a particular external effect. Rituals help us mark moments in our life. They serve as signals to mark physical and emotional transitions. Passed down through centuries, rituals have marked births, coming-of-age, marriage and death rites.  Organizations used rituals to acknowledge transitions and achievements.

Rituals are born out of physical proximity & are essential in creating community.

And as strange as rituals can be from a rational standpoint, they have evolved as distinct features of our social culture. Often born out of physical proximity, these rituals can cause challenges for online companies and remote employees in the midst of this pandemic. It’s important to consider the culture of your company and invest in shared rituals when onboarding new employees or retaining older ones.

The sports world is rife with reminders of how rituals can help wire companies to  accomplish excellence and form team bonds. New Zealand's national football team attributes much of their success with the rituals that shape the base of their culture. After every match—win or lose, home or away—everyone on the staff cleans the locker room until it's spotless. It's a ritual intended to express gratitude, create humility and affirm that each member of the team is just as essential as the other. The Japanese soccer team exquisitely illustrated a similar ritual when they left their locker room spotless following a devastating World Cup defeat.

Meaningful ways for rituals to reflect your identity

It’s important to design rituals that emulate traits synonymous with success, such as being comfortable with defeat and team work. Rituals can enhance the brand and culture of an organization, but they must be deliberate and repeatable. Smart leaders understand that rituals are levers for enhancing the organization's efficiency and take the cultivation and nurturing of these behaviours very seriously.

Although it isn't clear exactly how, rituals have been shown to reduce anxiety, improve performance and trust, and even work on employees who don't believe in them. In a study by the University of Toronto, individuals who practiced a ritual before completing a task were less anxious and sensitive to personal failure than when they completed the assignment without practicing a ritual first. There are a few elements and mechanics of a great ritual, but ultimately it’s intentionality that differentiates a good ritual from a not so good one. If you lose your intentionality, your ritual will turn into a mindless and unconscious routine.

A good ritual should be adaptable, but above all, energizing.

An amazing ritual has a je ne sais quoi characteristic that separates it from the mundane and the predictable. It includes a symbolic prop that allows people to mark a change. The ritual is adaptive and changes with time, depending on the desires of the individual. Influential rituals synchronize people so that they have a feeling of togetherness and rhythm. To achieve this synchronization, some rituals rely on social systems such as food sharing, the use of masks and costumes, and the use of music. Meaningful rituals generate emotional energy that drives and boosts employees. It is crucial for managers to consider what these rituals are about before they are implemented on a team. Analyze if a ritual is successful in energizing the team, and if not, evaluate and debug your method.

For millennia, humans have innately recognized that small, observable actions that are regularly executed can have great significance. At the end of the day, the rituals you create come down to the ideals you choose to in still. For us, that means fostering a work environment that breeds consistency and reliability, so that when we are once again able to return to the office like we used to - we do so with added purpose.

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