The power of rituals in the workplace

Published 11/1/2022

While you won’t see them on a corporate website, team rituals probably say more about life at work than anything else. When we talk about “rituals”, we’re not talking about trust-falls and Monday morning chants (though at a stretch they probably meet this definition). Put simply, a ritual is any act that is assigned meaning, is carried out at regular intervals and goes beyond just its practical purpose. Think, the daily Dom Post crossword you do as a team in the lunchroom, or the birthday month morning tea shout; we do these things not to simply complete the task, but to create a sense of belonging, of cohesion. 

Rituals like the above promote psychological safety by encouraging connectedness in a team or organisation; they humanise the workforce. And, with numerous studies suggesting connectedness is the number one challenge leaders face in the move to hybrid models of work, it’s ever more critical that we intentionally design workplace rituals if we are to build high performing teams. 

Research shows that when we feel connected to others or even ourselves in our work and personal lives, the feel-good hormone oxytocin goes up and stress hormone cortisol goes down. When we feel a sense of belonging and trust with a team, engagement, collaboration and productivity rise - we’re more efficient with increased focus, more agile, better aligned to goals and more resilient to change. In this post, we share why rituals are so valuable and give you some pointers on how to design them into your workplace.

How do we use rituals?

Tennis star Rafael Nadal famously performs an elaborate repertoire of rituals before and during every match. When he arrives at the stadium, he enters the court holding a racket in his hand, taking great care never to step on the lines and always crossing each line right-foot first. During the coin toss he faces the net and starts jumping until the coin falls, then runs to the baseline, where he drags his foot across the entire line in a single sweeping motion before hitting each shoe with his racket.

This behaviour may sound like superstition but it’s pure science. According to Nadal, he does this as a way of placing himself in a match: ordering his surroundings to match the order he seeks in his head. Whether this sense of control is illusory is of little importance. What matters is that ritual can be an efficient coping mechanism, and that is why those areas of life that involve high stakes and uncertain outcomes are rife with rituals.

You can think of your workplace in the same way. Rituals provide predictability, helping to impose order to the chaos of everyday life, providing teams with a sense of control over uncontrollable situations; situations we’ve come particularly accustomed to over the last few years.

Repetition of simple acts can shape how people behave and think. At X is Y, we use rituals all the time, with our teams and across our partnerships. For example, we begin online and in-person meetings with a check-in question, from something as simple as “what has your attention today?” to something as obscure as “what is the best bird?”. This serves many purposes: it primes the team to talk, supports individuals to connect as humans, promotes equal air time, gets everyone present and helps us to start on time. These goals connect to some of our key values: inclusivity and participation.

As we’ve written about previously, supporting teams to find purpose in an organisation is critical to engagement and innovation. Tying key values to rituals is the perfect way to incorporate purpose into employees’ shared experiences and mindfully apply company values into everything they do.

Rituals aren’t limited to “get togethers”, they can also be incorporated in systems and processes. For example, the onboarding process is a great time to connect people with the values and heart of the organisation. One example we’ve seen work beautifully is a company introducing a potential new hire to the team they’re likely to join, prior to being offered the role. During the virtual meet and greet current employees share something about themselves, learn a little about the candidate and share quirky anecdotes about the company. Rituals like this can create a sense of connection from day one, for the new recruit and the existing team.

How can you begin to build rituals into your own organisation?

Observe first

Notice what teams are already doing - are there tensions you might be able to solve for or strengths to build on? Look at how meetings get started for example, consider them from the perspective of an outsider to find norms and expand them into rituals. 

Aim for the beginning, or the end

There are numerous moments to design in workplace rituals: during recruiting and onboarding, meetings, meals, professional development, periods of change (drastic or otherwise) and celebratory milestones. Beginnings and endings, however, are particularly ripe for ritual design - these are moments when people might be experiencing more ambiguity, and rituals in these spaces can be an impactful and anchoring force.

Consider when you feel most aligned with your company

An excellent tactic from the Godmother of rituals Erica Keswin is to ask “when do you feel most [company]-ish?”.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to figure out what counts as a ritual in your company, but if you start with this question “when do I feel most X is Y - ish?” (obviously, insert your own company name here!) you direct attention and reflection on areas of the employee experience that are memorable and therefore provide a perfect opportunity for design or redesign. 

This focus on the experience of the team helps to keep ritual design employee-driven. Look for ways to encourage employees to create their own team rituals. What do they seem to enjoy doing together? Build on that, resource that!

Ask for feedback on your rituals and refine

Don’t be afraid to try things out. Treat everything as an experiment. If you start a ritual and it’s not sticky, get feedback, see what’s working, what’s not and continue to iterate. Rituals are so innate to our human experience that they do often emerge organically. You can’t force a ritual: if it doesn’t work, let it go.

Could rituals benefit your business?

Designing rituals is just one way leaders can unlock and support new ways of working in their organisations. There are many others to explore too, so if you want to shake things up, reach out for a free chat and let’s get the conversation started.

Rituals in the workplace

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