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How rituals can create a better workplace culture

Can designing rituals with a multi-level focus, from entry level workers all the way up to the CEO, help organisational culture?

In our daily lives 40 per cent of our actions come from habits. A daily routine like getting up for glasses of water  promotes a healthier and more productive day, but what if you took routines and expanded upon them to create rituals for a better work culture?

A study found that performing a simple ritual like meditation prior to a normally anxiety inducing task, reduced the number of elevated heart rates and improved the overall performance of research participants.

So introducing rituals and better habits can help a workforce, but meditation isn’t going to be possible or appropriate for everyone. Here are some other examples.

The lesser known All Blacks ritual

Many would know of the All Blacks’ ritual before games, the famous Ka Mate Haka, but they also perform a simpler ritual after their games.

It’s called ‘sweeping the shed’ – every team member cleans up the locker rooms after each game. According to Legacy by James Kerr, it contributes to the team’s success (they have won just under 77 per cent of all their matches) by keeping them humble.

Another successful organisation, Google, allegedly has 86 per cent of its employees state they are either extremely satisfied or fairly satisfied and the secret to their success is attributed to constant innovation, experimentation and fun.

“Organizations are tapping into the power of ritual to encourage innovation. These small acts can be used in the workplace to engender a sense of community, build cohesion and ultimately help take an organization from good to great,” Google’s chief innovation evangelist, Frederik Pferdt says.

Pferdt’s team engages in a ritual at the beginning of every week where everyone shares a personal or professional failure and what they learned from it.

“The ritual is repeated every week and helps build psychology safety and comfort around failure,” he says.

Alleviating disappointment

Rituals aren’t just about increased satisfaction though. Researchers at Harvard Business School conducted an experiment to see if rituals could alleviate disappointment.

They invited participants to their lab and told them they would be a part of a random draw where they could win $200 on the spot without having to complete the study.

Some of the losing participants were asked to complete the following ritual:

  • Draw how you currently feel on the piece of paper on your desk for two minutes.  
  • Sprinkle a pinch of salt on the paper with your drawing.
  • Tear up the piece of paper.
  • Count up to ten in your head five times.

Those who engaged in the ritual reported feeling less grief than those who didn’t.

Ritual design strategy

A team of researchers from Stanford and Oxford found that total employee engagement in the US is only 32 per cent. They decided to tackle this problem in an ongoing series of ritual design workshops. Through them they found what they believe are the keys to successful ritual design:

  • Improvisation
  • Collaborative and playful interactions
  • Adapting to team life cycle challenges
  • Acting out rituals rather than writing them down
  • Having clear ground rules

Crash the desk

The results from one of the workshops provide an interesting look into the kinds of rituals organisations could consider designing. On the first day participants identified a challenge in a particular organisation’s team, and the next day they used the researchers’ framework to design rituals that could assist them.

One of the identified challenges was a virtual team that was struggling to connect personally. To help them a ‘Circle Up’ ritual was designed. During the team’s once-a-year in-person meeting they would come together in a circle and each member took turns walking into the centre to share something small but personal. After each presentation, the rest of the team would clap and cheer.

A similar use of personal details was in-built to a ritual designed to help a team with its onboarding. It’s called ‘Crash the Desk’ and its purpose was to surprise new hires on their first day of work. While the staff member was away from their new desk, it would be filled with personal objects from their teammates. The idea is for the employee to go on a ‘treasure hunt’ where they have to talk to co-workers to try and figure out which object belongs to whom and find out what made the objects special.   

Do you have any team rituals? Tell us about them in the comments below.

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“Rituals Foster Engagement, Study Says”. Was the study done by the Incas?
Seriously, though. I look forward to our monthly ritual sacrifice at work, I just get a little disappointed that my name hasn’t been drawn out to be the lucky one to join the Gods in the afterlife.
¡Khali kaq kachun!

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