A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to one of my clients’ “Something About” party. The event has acted as an important annual ritual ever since the company moved into its new building a few years ago. While the event is meaningless to outsiders, it is a highly-anticipated event among company employees. The ritual is firmly ingrained in the organizational culture. Within weeks of joining the company, new hires learn to anticipate the party with great enthusiasm.
The most effective executives appreciate that rituals, even though they may appear meaningless to the outside world, can move waters in terms of fortifying a company’s identity. Paolo Guenzi, a professor at Bocconi University and co-author of “Leading Teams”, attests, “Smart leaders…recognize that rituals...are levers for improving the organization’s performance and they take the creation and nurturing of rituals very seriously.”
Benefits of Rituals
1. Rituals strengthen team bonds
Thought to have been established by the 1980's New York Islanders, playoff beards have become a staple among NHL players during the playoff seasons. The act of not shaving has become a firmly established ritual for league members.
There’s a reason rituals are a common modus operandi for many highly successful sports teams. Rituals serve the very important function of strengthening team bonds. Consider, for example, a study spearheaded by Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School. The study involved two groups, one of which was instructed to congregate in a circle and perform a sequence of rhythmic claps and foot stomps, followed by a chant of “Let’s Go." This ritual was repeated three times. The other group was instructed to read an article in silence. Both groups then proceeded to participate in a scavenger hunt. Not only did the group members who performed the ritual outperform the group that had not performed the ritual, they also reported liking teammates more.
The most effective companies leverage rituals as a means of forging strong interpersonal bonds. Rituals serve the very important function of impacting identity fusion and producing a strong sense of oneness. They also empower executives at all levels of seniority to be viewed in a normalizing way. IDEO, for example, holds a 10-minute “Tea Time” each Wednesday as a means of encouraging social bonding and building team unity. Consider the various ways you can incorporate rituals into your organizational fabric.
2. Rituals reduce anxiety levels
Rituals can function as a powerful antidote against anxiety. Research by Alison Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School, and her colleagues found that performing a ritual prior to partaking in a stressful situation can reduce feelings of anxiety and, in turn, heighten performance levels.
As a leader, it's worth the time and effort to consider how you can embed rituals into your organizational DNA and, in turn, reduce anxiety levels. Some companies, for example, hold ritualistic "Sales Kickoffs" to denote the start of each new sales quarter and combat the higher-than-normal stress levels associated with sales quota refreshes. Other companies throw launch parties to celebrate product releases and ward off the elevated stress levels associated with anticipation and uncertainty pertaining to market acceptance. Consider the stressful and anxiety-laden events that affect your company and contemplate how you can leverage rituals to reduce anxiety levels and, ultimately, optimize performance levels. The assistance of an executive coach can further quell anxiety levels and act as a powerful supplement to rituals. As an executive coach, I’m skilled in self-compassion, meditation, mindfulness, and other techniques that can assist in stress and anxiety reduction.
3. Rituals increase our perceptions of value
Rituals are especially impactful in that they tend to enhance our perceptions of value. A 2013 study published in Psychological Science involved one group of participants tasting chocolate in a ritualistic manner, first breaking the bar in half without unwrapping it, then unwrapping half the bar and consuming, and then unwrapping the second half and consuming it. The other group consumed the chocolate as they normally would. The individuals who consumed the chocolate ritualistically rated the chocolate more favorably and enjoyed the consumption process more, taking more time to savor it. They were even willing to pay nearly twice as much for the chocolate. The researchers conjecture that the ritual increased their personal involvement in the activity and, in doing so, enhanced the chocolate's perceived value. Heidi Grant, the Associate Director of Columbia University’s Motivation Science Center, explains, “If employees perform rituals as part of their jobs, they are likely to find their jobs more rewarding." Remarkably, according to Grant, the ritual need not make any sense to be effective.
As a leader, it’s important to consider how you can incorporate rituals into your corporate DNA. Due to the increased perceived value that is spurred, rituals can prove enormously effective in the context of rewarding outstanding performance. Grant advises, “[I]f you’re giving [employees] a bonus, don’t just leave the check in their mailbox — find a way to give it to them that involves some formality…Bang a gong, do an end-zone dance, hand out your own version of the green “Masters” jacket that the employee wears for a week…Wrap it in a ritual, and you will have created added value right out of thin air.”
American television journalist and businesswoman Deborah Norville once remarked, “There is a comfort in rituals, and rituals provide a framework for stability when you are trying to find answers.” Rituals serve an important purpose in organizations and, when leveraged effectively, can function as a guiding light and propel unity, growth, and prosperity. As Elizabeth Gilbert scribed in “Eat, Pray, Love”, “[I]f your culture or tradition doesn't have the specific ritual you are craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet.”
Nadine Greiner, Ph.D. provides Executive Coaching and Human Resources solutions. Her mission is to make the executive experience exceptionally enjoyable and effective. She believes that the world needs great leaders, and has dedicated her career to helping them.
As an organization psychologist and former corporate CEO, Dr. Nadine understands the pressures and demands executives face. She offers her clients the high expertise that only comes with three decades of consulting success, and a dual Ph.D. in Organization Development and Clinical Psychology. Dr. Nadine is an in-demand speaker, teaches in doctoral programs, and coaches other consultants. She is the author of two books: ‘The Art of Executive Coaching: Secrets to Unlock Leadership Performance’, and of ‘Stress-less Leadership: How to Lead in Business and in Life’. amazon.com/author/nadinegreiner
Contact Information: Feel free to email Dr. Nadine San Francisco Executive Coaching at