Subscribe to email update

The Power of Work-Place Rituals: Thriving and Changing Together

  Edith "Edie" Raphael, PhD     Jan 27, 2016

power of workplace rituals.jpg

One of the main topics we address at Rewire is how to manage change. We start with the premise that no one likes change because the most primitive part our brain (often called the Lizard Brain) prefers familiarity. Every time our rational mind wants or needs to do things differently, the Lizard Brain protests…loudly. Individually, we can find ways to quiet our own Lizard Brain (and you can find many of those as you read our articles here on The Wireboard). But I would also like to offer a solution that teams and businesses can implement collectively to buffer the stress of big changes on the work front: the workplace ritual.


Over the years, I’ve spent tens of thousands of hours looking through the lens of sociology as way to understand and engage with human behavior. And this sociological lens continues to give wonderful insight into my work with people and companies as they look to change and grow. Corporate rituals are one example of what I mean.

 

Sociologists recognize that one of the oldest and most powerful collective change-management techniques is ritual. Sociologists define ritual as a formalized and regular behavior that members of a group engage in together.  Rituals help people manage change because they piggyback change onto a familiar set of actions or behavior. Weddings, graduation ceremonies, inaugurations, coronations, maypole dances, and harvest celebrations are all rituals that smooth over transitions in social status or seasons. For example, by engaging in the same celebration every New Year’s Eve (watching the ball drop at Times Square), the Lizard Brain relaxes into the new year.

 

Notice that sociologists define rituals as social activities as opposed to something people do alone. When people engage in rituals together they are in effect sharing the struggle with change together and that sense of sharing creates a strong sense of connection. Sports teams, like the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team (pictured at the start of this article), engage in pre-game rituals to reinforce the sense of community among players.

 

By adopting rituals into your workplace culture you can help manage change-based anxiety and build or strengthen a sense of community (aka “team-building”). Rituals can be serious, solemn or silly, but they need to be embraced by everyone involved. In an article in HBR “How Ritual Delivers Performance” https://hbr.org/2013/02/how-ritual-delivers-performanc, Paulo Guenzi offers some extraordinary examples of corporate rituals, such as one in-house marketing team that slaps each other on the buttocks and screams, “Shit!” before big high-pressure meetings.

 

Spanking and swearing might not play so well with your team, so here are

5 quick-start suggestions for rituals you can implement in your business:

  1. Begin every meeting with a ritual such as 1) one minute of silent meditation, 2) an inspirational reading, 3) an EQ check-in (go around the table and have each person identify one to three current emotions, they are feeling—without explanation as to why).
  2. End every meeting with a ritual action or phrase. (If you’re old enough to remember the TV show Hill Street Blues, you’ll remember that the morning shift meeting was always ended by the precinct captain exhorting “Let’s be careful out there.” 
  3. Create daily rituals where every day at, say, 11am everyone stops their work and does a group stretch or gets a cookie or an apple from the kitchen, or two minutes of silence. According to David Gelles in Mindful Work, at the clothing company Prana, a gong rung daily at 3pm signals a company-wide mindfulness break in the hectic work day.
  4. Weekly rituals could be that every Wednesday, there’s an over-the-hump group walk around the block, or singing of a classic rock song that everyone can belt out together.
  5. Rituals around big changes can be in place for whenever people feel that a huge seismic shift is coming down the pike. You can gather everyone together for a 30-minute faux “roast” — sharing fond memories of the old office, computer system, management structure or whatever it is that is being replaced or changed.

A well-orchestrated corporate ritual can dramatically reduce workplace stress and increase the feelings of community. And rituals typically are very low-cost to implement and maintain.  The greatest challenge of setting one up is identifying a ritual which feels organic and meaningful to the employees. We recommend that rituals be developed with involvement of employees on all tiers. It also helps to recruit the natural leaders in the company to participate and endorse the ritual. Last but not least, rituals, themselves, are meant to evolve and change over time. Don’t get too wedded to a particular ritual that it loses its impact.

 

One ritual I have used with groups and in some of our Rewire meetings is the Emotional Intelligence (EI) check-in. At the beginning of a meeting, each person identifies one or two emotions he or she is currently feeling such as sad, happy, grateful, anxious, disappointed, etc. Identifying emotions is important work for us at Rewire as it helps us help others with EI. It’s also helpful to get folks to take a moment to check in with themselves and acknowledge how they are feeling. (Note: people are not asked to identify the reasons for the emotions.) If you are interested in learning more about the benefits of this ritual, or about starting your own, please get in touch.

 

Likewise, if your company or group already has an effective ritual that you would be willing to share, please tell us about it in the comments.

  Emotional Intelligence Mindfulness Change Communication Lizard Brain Organizations Work

Edith

Written by Edith "Edie" Raphael, PhD

Edie Raphael is consultant and coach with Rewire. She is passionate about mindful work practices and organizational culture change. She is also one of the kindest, most brutal yoga instructors you will meet.

Subscribe to Email Updates