The beauty (and danger) of rituals

The Beauty

There are two good routines (for lack of a better word) that I see every morning when I get to work.
The first is an older gentleman who walks through our campus every morning and evening. I’ve seen him nearly without fail, every single day, regardless of the weather. He walks with a pronounced limp, so it must take real determination to do it. I asked a coworker about him – apparently, he’s been on this route for YEARS and this is his exercise routine.  It’s definitely working, as I’ve seen the weight drop off. When I didn’t see him walking for a couple of weeks, I got worried…but he must have been out of town, because after the holidays, he was back at it. I really admire this guy. It couldn’t have been easy for him to get started, but he has stuck with it.
The second ritual I see takes place in the parking lot. Every morning, a minivan pulls up to the front door, and a female gets out from the passenger side, walks around to the driver side, and kisses the gentleman who is driving. Then she stands at the curb as he pulls away, and when he honks the horn in salute, she raises her hand in a farewell wave. And then she goes to work. I love it when I get to see this happen. I never want to find out the backstory because it’s such a lovely moment on its own, every day.


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.tumblr_lqcgze7bGY1qfwcfh

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 Danger

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.

Think OCD.

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.

The Balance

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!

2 thoughts on “The beauty (and danger) of rituals

  1. Good post! I wonder if there’s something to be said about the distinction between rituals and habits. I think I can see the difference between the two, but then I wonder if that’s even relevant to your post. I also wonder if it’s possible to ritualize (habitualize?!?!?) a breaking habits?

    1. Thanks, Vadim! I think habits and rituals are related – rituals can be mindful, habits less so. But the opposite also is true. So … yeah. But seriously, I think you CAN ritualize/habitualize the breaking of a behavior – you’re replacing one ritual with another. Think of exercise – your old ritual is hitting snooze…this is replaced by getting your butt up and onto the treadmill.

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