adjective rit·u·al \ˈri-chə-wəl, -chəl; ˈrich-wəl\
What is a ritual, really? The dictionary describes it as something always done in a particular situation and in the same way each time. It can be anything from a simple handshake upon meeting someone, to a highly complex series of phrases and behaviors over the course of a religious ceremony.
We like rituals because it removes the anxiety over the unknown. We like knowing what’s expected of us at a certain time. It comforts us. It makes us feel smart. They also promote good habits (see story of man walking to exercise every day).
When used best, rituals promote a sense of belonging – they help define an organization or culture. They remind us that while we all are different people, we have past behaviors and expectations in common.
The insidious side of rituals is that the more we do them, the harder it is to break them. In some ways, our brain likes repetition. Think of your brain as a snow-covered mountainside, with your actions or thoughts as skiers. Like skiers shooshing through the snow dig tracks and moguls into the snowfield, every time we reinforce an activity or behavior, it deepens the neural pathway in the brain. And sometimes those ruts get so deep, you can’t get out of them.
Now think about your organization. Are there rituals that border on the ridiculous? Ones that are so ingrained that no one even know why they do it anymore, but feel like they have to or else?
You know that rituals have shifted to the “danger” side of the equation when you hear things like, “it’s how we’ve always done it” or “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Rituals can damage innovation and growth. They can rob an employee population of imagination and acceptance of positive change. Rituals can keep a leader from being able to adapt to the needs of her people because she’s always managed that way. They can work an employee out of job because he can’t adapt to a new process.
It takes diligence to ensure that rituals are helping, and not hurting, your team/department/organization.
Because rituals help foster a sense of community and belonging at at organization, you need to pay homage to the past while building new rituals for the future.
You need to monitor your rituals to see if they have morphed into something damaging. Are they making it difficult for new people to assimilate? Are they blocking your team from solving problems creatively?
Ritualize behaviors that promote good habits (quality assurance, compliance, etc.) and de-ritualize behaviors that promote creativity (problem solving, recognition, coaching, etc.).
By finding a balance between the beauty and danger of rituals, you’ll minimize the harmful moments – like a team refusing to change – and maximize the good moments – like a morning farewell wave to a loved one.
What rituals do you have in your workplace? Are they “beautiful” or “dangerous”? Share in the comments!