We, in our personal and social lives, tend to observe many kinds of rituals - from the religious once-in-a-lifetime ceremonies that mark events such as birth, marriage, and death to the more frequent and regular observances of birthdays and festivals. Just like how families have customs and rituals, organizations do so too. It could be the team-building activities, the Friday happy hour events, the award ceremonies, retirement parties, annual meetings, or simple things like the coffee breaks or the 15 minute team huddles.
Why are rituals important? What purpose do they serve? Professor Paolo Guenzi from Bocconi University in his Harvard Business Review article discusses how rituals affect team performance. Specifically, they serve four main purposes. First, they bring in a sense of shared identity and collectiveness. The retreats and off-site activities help develop the bond between new and old team members of an organization. During the soccer or basketball matches, teams are often seen huddling together with their unique war cry. After a goal in a soccer game, the team members are seen with their special dance moves. Or for that matter, the rationale behind the controversial idea of ragging within colleges is also to develop a sense of belonging to a group.
Events like ‘bring your parents at work’ or ‘open door days’ allow the friends, family, and partners of the employees bond with each other. In that sense, the different roles that individuals play in their professional, social, and personal lives can come together and bring a sense of holistic oneness to our very existence. In an interview, Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, shared that she would often write a letter to the parents of her exceptionally-performing employees and the reactions of those employees and families were phenomenal. It helped build a bond between the family members, parents got closer to their children’s lives, and it was also a moment of pride for the employees. Then, fun events like happy hours, picnics, and project-finishing parties are events that can help reduce anxiety. And rituals like award ceremonies or employee of the month can be used to reinforce desired behaviors.
Such symbolic behaviors associated with meaningful events in our lives been performed across cultures and time. They give rhythm and certainty to the chaos in life. Children look forward to their birthday parties, the Halloween candies, and their Christmas presents. As adults, we look forward to getting back together with our families for Thanksgiving, Chinese New Year, Diwali, or Durga Puja. Many societies have customs associated with cleaning the house, buying new things, and gifting to each other. And in fact, many of these festivals and customs are nicely tied to the weather and agricultural harvesting cycles. On the other hand, in negative and bad times, rituals have been known to have the healing power and help in alleviating grief.
One can also find several inspirational stories and discussions about the daily morning rituals that successful people follow. Humans feel uncertain and anxious in a host of situations. And having some must-do things during the day gives control over one’s time and activities and that helps clear up the mind and improve productivity. Of course, there are also the humorous rituals that people create for themselves for good luck such as wearing a particular pair of jeans for the exams, washing hands incessantly, or eating food items. Research has shown that such rituals too can enhance people’s confidence in their abilities, motivate greater effort, and improve subsequent performance.
If you are in a leadership position where your work involves leading, managing, and motivating people, make use of rituals to create high performing teams. Rituals can add meaningfulness, a sense of belonging, and shared identity to the group. They are a great way to build a strong committed culture within an organization. Similarly, for family life it can be a great way to build discipline and character. At the same time, be watchful of not overdoing it - customs can quickly turn into blind faith, irrationality, and destructive obsession. Create worthwhile (and not superstitious) rituals that fit with your overall values – at a personal, organizational, and societal level.