When a new employee starts in our organization, we have a welcoming ritual. Everyone gathers for coffee and snacks at some point during the employee’s first week. We gather in a circle and each person introduces the person next to them by identifying some of their strengths and something fun about them that isn’t related to work. Although the mechanics of this have changed a little as we have grown, the essentials have not. We enjoy food together, and we celebrate each other’s strengths and quirks.
What are workplace rituals?
Workplace rituals are defining events that repeat themselves in the life cycle of an organization, and they reflect and communicate its values and priorities in powerful ways. For example, if an organization values responding positively to feedback, sharing a story about learning from criticism at each staff meeting shows people just how closely this value is held. If an organization values strong interpersonal relationships, a ritual of getting together for food and connection communicates this more strongly than words on a page ever could.
In their article, “Want to Strengthen Workplace Culture? Design a Ritual,” Mollie West and Kate McCoubrey Judson explain that “Rituals engage people around the things that matter most to an organization, instilling a sense of shared purpose and experience. They spark behaviors that make the work and the company more successful.” In addition to showing what kind of behavior is valued, rituals help build camaraderie and they give us a sense that we belong to a unique and special group. After our own welcoming ritual, new employees feel like they are becoming part of a team that enjoys and values one another.
Rituals vary in scope and complexity. They may be simple like always starting your staff meetings with a joke, or everyone crafting their email signature in a unique way. Or they may be complex, built around how you celebrate personal or organizational milestones – things like attending the same charity fundraisers every year, storytelling rituals at holiday parties, or even organized potlucks.
How do you a create workplace ritual?
Often rituals begin without a lot of forethought. We try something, people like it, and then we repeat it. But I believe that creating rituals with intention can add a lot of value to them. Given the way rituals reinforce values and beliefs, we should pay attention to creating rituals that emphasize the values that are important to our organizations. For instance, one of our values is being engaged – we care about our mission and each other. This value is reinforced by rituals like our welcoming circle.
We must also remember that our rituals should serve a positive purpose for our organizations. It’s easy to continue rituals without changing them, even when they are no longer fun or serving their original purpose. Our own welcoming circle ritual began when we had about eight staff members. It created a sense of inclusion, camaraderie, and humor. At that time, our tradition was to ask the second most recent hire to introduce everyone in the circle to the newest staff member. But once we hit 15+ employees, I started hearing that it was becoming more intimidating and less enjoyable (for some), and I certainly noticed that it was more time consuming. Since our intention was to be welcoming and put people at ease, we adapted our ritual to have each employee introduce the person beside them.
Rituals sometimes seem untouchable, as though we can’t alter them because that would ruin their importance. However, like all aspects of organizational culture, we should expect our rituals to evolve over time. As our organizations change, and as our people change, so should our rituals. Here are some ideas to help you determine how well your rituals fit with your organization’s culture:
1. List Your Rituals
If you have a hard time identifying your organization’s rituals, it might be time to start some. Remember, rituals include things like how you celebrate personal or organizational milestones, annual events like charity fundraisers, and eating together. Rituals are built by repetition, so if you try something and it works, repeat it.
2. Ensure Your Intentions Match Their Impact
Make sure you consider the newest and least powerful people as you think about the impact of your rituals, as it is usually people in these roles that are first to feel the negative impact of poorly conceived rituals. In our case, our welcoming ritual became more uncomfortable for our newest staff as we got larger, especially for those who were less inclined to speak in front of a group. If the effect is different than your intention, consider adjusting the ritual.
3. Ensure Your Rituals Communicate Your Values
Rituals tell staff what is important, what you laugh about, or where you spend your energy in your organization, much like our welcoming ritual. Consider your organization’s stated values. If your rituals don’t match your values, look for ways to bring them into alignment. If your organization does not have stated values, then consider what values your rituals communicate and ask yourself if you and the other leaders are comfortable with that.
Our rituals bring a sense of definition and rhythm to our work lives, showing us what the organization and the people around us value. As leaders, we have two options when it comes to rituals: we can let them form on their own, or we can be intentional about starting and shaping them. I believe we should choose the latter option as much as possible because of the way rituals shape and communicate our workplace culture.
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