Using rituals within our Change work should be a no-brainer. The research is clear that rituals can anticipate or generate change and help to maintain change by building a sense of what is expected behaviour(1).
Rituals can contribute to decreased anxiety and improve performance (2), something that is incredibly valuable given the challenges on mental health we are experiencing today. And rituals have been shown to strengthen desired behaviours, create focus and make changes stick in organisations (3) - so what's not to like there?
But what exactly is a ritual and how do we design them so they are effective for the people in the business?
Beth Kanter has a lovely definition for rituals which is:
Rituals are intentional small, tangible acts done routinely, and carry meaning.
Important things to note - rituals are done routinely which means we can do them on autopilot after a time and access the benefits of the ritual even when distracted or busy with other thoughts because it is part of our routine.
And they don't have to be HUGE! They are small and intentional.
And they have meaning - we know what these actions mean no matter how small.
Take shaking hands for instance. This
is an automatic ritual that we engage in when saying hello and one that is so routine that we don't even think about it when we engage in it (think of how hard it is to break the habit with reduced contact through pandemic times).
The meaning we attach to a handshake is high and many layers of communication come with it. It's intentional, small, tangible, done routinely and carries meaning - a very simple example of a ritual in your every day.
Designing Rituals for Change
When we consider designing rituals to support our change efforts there are some key things to consider:
Rituals can create new power dynamics and drive employee engagement
A ritual represents an opportunity for an employee-designed action, that is maintained and moderated by employees, leading to a different power dynamic than other sponsor or leader-led activities. Because this type of action can be local and small, employees can design and implement rituals that suit their environment more readily.
Rituals are not workshops
It's important to separate a ritual from an exercise, workshop, activity or event you are planning as part of your change. A ritual is something that has a long term connection to the employees everyday routine. Think small and sustainable.
Co-design your ritual wherever possible
Research shows that allowing employees to co-design rituals (from existing rituals of using a process such as that recommended by Kanter (5)) will increase their sense of purpose and meaning at work (4). We are huge believers in co-creating with team members wherever possible and use a local skills workshop to help teams start scanning their workplace for ritual opportunities and then work with them to shape the form of the ritual in their workplace.
Connect to existing rituals for greatest ease
Where a ritual already exists, there is opportunity to connect new actions to enhance or a new ritual altogether to provide a new meaning. This supports the routine of the new ritual as it is being established, as it is aligns with an existing ritual time.
Beginnings and endings are great places for rituals
Celebration and recognition rituals are great places to start when you want to begin working with rituals, or even just working with the beginning or ending of meetings, weeks or months to create a clear cadence.
Consider how inclusive your ritual will be
What feels meaningful to some will be feel awkward and exclusionary to others, so examine what you've designed to ensure it considers the people you want to take part in the ritual. Is this something that everyone can feel comfortable participating in? What is the impact on overall company culture? What happens if someone wants to opt-out?
Some ritual suggestions that have worked for us and others:
Stop Days or Hours
Not as dramatic as it sounds! This could be a designed hour (or even a day) of quiet work, or designated meeting-free time. When this becomes the ritual for the whole team then no one feels odd having their diary blocked out or taking the dedicated hours to complete tasks that need focused time. This time can be used to progress a change (or any other) project or simply ensure that the demands of a shared, open-plan space aren't impacting the productivity/mental health of team members.
Support the team to create regular opportunities to meet and eat together. Kevin Kniffin at Cornell University conducted research with firefighters who had high records of saving lives and found they were the most dedicated to the ritual of sitting around the table and bonding over a firehouse meal. Food is often at the heart of many of our rituals, just ensure you are inclusive in your approach. Teams can be conducting different rituals of food within the same Branch or Area, it's all about what works for them.
Check in Rounds
Connect this ritual to an existing meeting or catch up with a check in on team members at the start of the regular strategy/project/team meeting. Get to know something about them which could give insights into their response to change, or the way they see the future of the business. A Check in Round could be checking in with one person, or having a question that each person provides a short answer to - it's all about tailoring it to your team.
A Swedish tradition where teams break for coffee together 1-2 times a day. If you think of it like a short team recess of 15-20 mins taken at 3pm this is a great way to generate energy and create relationships. A struggle for some this can be a great way to increase general wellbeing across the team, create connections and improve productivity. The deadline of being at Fika at 3pm (or 11am if that's when you want to do it!) can also help your team to timebox work and then have a productive downtime before moving on.
Rituals can help create some space for thinking, reduce anxiety or create a more connected team, along with so many other great outcomes for teams experiencing change.
Make sure you listen to the teams engaging in the ritual and adapt it as necessary so that it really does resonate for the long term.
So often leaders of change ask what can be done to 'get their teams through change', and these small, long-term actions are a great way to create peer-to-peer networks and reduce the isolation that many experience during change, as well as allowing team members to feel they have control over some elements of their workplace.
Check out the papers below to read more about the science behind rituals and tell us in the comments about your approach to rituals in your workplace >
(1) Turner, V.: Social Dramas and Stories about Them. Critical Inquiry 7:1, 141-168 (1980)
(2) Norton, M. I., Gino, F., Why rituals work. In: Scientific American. 5 (2013)
(3) Grant, H.: New Research: Rituals Make Us Value Things More. In: Harvard Business Review. 12 (2013)
(4) Chalofsky, N. E.: Meaningful Workplaces: Reframing How and Where we Work. John Wiley & Sons (2010)