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Making Change a Habit with Rituals

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 are a method for making change a habit that sticks.

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?

Understanding Rituals

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.

image of two men shaking hands joyfully

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

Co-design your ritual wherever possible

Connect to existing rituals for greatest ease

Beginnings and endings are great places for rituals

Consider how inclusive your ritual will be

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.

Communal Meals/Snacks

Check in Rounds

Try Fika

images shows a communal lunch table spread with a shared meal

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. Remember we are using rituals to generate change or give it momentum, not as another change on top of those already at play.

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.

Want to learn how to do this yourself?

Book a Clarity Call today to talk to us about how.

(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)


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