Want to Improve Your Work Culture? Adopt a Ritual!

Why do we gather together to remember a loved one when they’ve died?  Why do we say vows at a wedding?  Why do we give toasts at Thanksgiving?  These are all examples of rituals we regularly participate in, often without thinking.  They are part of our culture and are a physical representation of the psychological processes we go through. Rituals offer ways to commemorate significant events.  

I was recently introduced to the fantastic book:  Rituals at Work:  50 Ways to Create Engagement, Shared Purpose and a Culture That Can Adapt to Change by Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan.  The authors define a ritual as, “actions that a person or group does repeatedly, following a similar pattern or script, in which they’ve imbued symbolism and meaning.”

I was instantly intrigued as to how a work culture could be improved by using rituals!  How could we intentionally make our workspaces better, more engaging and more connected?  In our new reality of working remotely, surviving a fractured election and a pandemic, the need to connect, empathize, and reduce stress is more important than ever.  The book and the examples are built from research and are shown to help with transitions, anxiety, motivation, creativity, sense of control, and quality of work. 

The authors hone in on some key ideas – rituals are done intentionally, they have a magical effect, they can change or adopt over time, and most importantly, I think, they are symbolic of the transition, the moment, the issue we are experiencing.  Turns out these work cultures mirror the same processes as are present in our personal lives.  Maybe they don’t make logical sense why we do them, but they’re part of our traditions, our holidays, our lives.  

There are 5 different types of rituals for the workplace, which I’ll outline below.

Creativity and Innovation:  These rituals help work groups tap into the creative parts of the brain and allow for a failure-free environment.  It’s best to use these rituals when your team is suffering from ‘analysis-paralysis’ and a low threshold for psychological safety.  It builds empathy and personal connections as well.  One example I liked in the book was shared from Facebook.  Groups were instructed for a 24 hour period to focus exclusively on one problem or idea.  Shelving other tasks for that 24 hour period allowed for the creative side of everyone to emerge, share ideas and solutions without the fear of criticism or failure.

Performance and Flow:  Rituals in this section focus on eliminating unnecessary distractions and emotions in order to perform with confidence and focus.  Teams can use existing mission statements, values and core beliefs to tap into a ritual that can inspire an increase in performance and productivity.  Some examples include taking a few moments before starting a task to quietly reflect on its importance, doing something nonsensical such as tossing a ball back and forth and reciting some key ideas, and lastly, we see athletes performing this type of ritual before games.  Whether it’s always eating the same meal or wearing the same jersey before every game, these rituals help the athlete focus on their goals. 

Conflict and Resilience:  In the Ombuds Office we always remind people that conflict is inevitable; it’s resolution or end result doesn’t have to be.  That said, even when a conflict is resolved, how do you move past any residual feelings or concerns?  These rituals promote healing and moving forward and help reduce tensions.  Native Americans are said to burn herbs and plants as a way of healing and moving forward, known as “smudging”.  Airbnb uses a ritual called “Elephant, Dead Fish, Vomit” as a way to open up conversations to address conflict.  The intention of using these phrases in a meeting is to establish a safe environment where the undiscussable can be discussed (elephant), where unresolved issues still appear (dead fish), or help people vent without action needed (vomit).  

Community and Team Building: This section of the book addresses ways in which to further connect and create bonds on a team.  They can include such events as music festivals, block parties or religious ceremonies.  A great example of this type of ritual that can be used virtually is the “Remote Holiday Party” which allows for participants to give gifts, share appreciations and generally socialize.  The main idea here is that, regardless of where people are located physically, bonding and community building can still occur.  

Change and Transition:  No doubt, change is something we can all count on happening, and we certainly are not strangers to this in 2020!  Rituals for this topic are especially helpful psychologically – they help us move from one stage to another (e.g., life with someone to life without them), a physical and tangible way to process change.  We see this in the workplace when someone retires or a new member joins the group.  “Mourning the Recently Left” is an excellent way to achieve closure when someone leaves.  Members of the group write a note describing what they won’t miss about them and place them in a box.  Then members write a note describing what they will miss about them and place it on a white board.   The “won’t miss” box is burned.  This ritual gives people a change to mourn losing a team member and show their appreciation for them.

Whether your team is closer than ever in 2020 or could use help creating processes for remote work, there’s something for everyone in this book!

By: Lisa Neale, Associate Director, University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office

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