Teams have life cycles: they are born with a mission, they grow and sustain themselves, and they dissolve as their mission ends.
But not all of these cycles are happy. Teams go through fights. They get “re-org”-ed and end up with new leaders or changed missions. People get fired or quit.
One of the ways to make these transitions easier is through rituals, deliberate actions that bring higher meaning into an experience. Often thought of in a religious or spiritual context, rituals can be any series of activities that helps connect people to something bigger than what’s directly in front of them. In our work on ritual design and teachings at Stanford’s d.school, my partner Margaret Hagan and I found that rituals can give a safe space for individuals and teams to experiment with new ideas while reinforcing values and connection despite cycles of change.
Rituals, of course, can come in many forms. In researching for my book, Rituals For Work, I’ve seen many that can help teams become more creative, productive, and adaptable. Some of the most common ones are daily scrums, weekly share-outs, and team-bonding events such as shared lunches and retreats. Here are five other rituals that managers and individual contributors can employ for healthier, more adaptable teams.
1. For improving performance
Research shows that rituals help people regulate their emotions, get closer to their life and professional goals, and live by their values. Emotion regulation is a fascinating aspect of rituals. For instance, athletes such as tennis player Rafael Nadal use rituals to calm and focus on the game. Teams like New Zealand’s rugby teams, on the other hand, use a dance ritual called Haka to amp up the team’s emotions for confidence.
In our research, we came across the “Moment of Reverence,”a small ritual to do right before a big event. It’s taken from the operating room, where doctors and nurses, right before they begin a surgery, intentionally stop and take a moment to remind themselves that the surgery they’re about to perform is on a real person, who has family and friends and a whole life to live. It’s a moment to reflect on how important the surgery is for this person. This small moment of reverence is a way to stop from getting burned out or empathy fatigue. It’s a way to ensure that the team is also tuned in, and performing with flow.
You can see effective use of this ritual in high-stakes business situations. Often times, in the grind of production, teams might lose touch with people on the receiving end of an offering. To avoid this, teams can take a Moment of Reverence to remember the end user that they are serving before launching a new product or initiative. By taking that moment to connect, it’s a way of gut-checking yourself that the work you’ve done is sound.
2. For creating a deeper sense of purpose
What makes a team a healthy one is connectedness and a sense of belongingness among its members. When it’s attuned to its members’ values, community rituals help a manager create a whole which is bigger than the sum of its parts.
The pinning ceremony from Stanford d.school is a good example for community building. It is a special ritual when a team has really come together and achieved something. When students are at the end of a class, at the very final moments of the final class, the teaching team leads a pinning ceremony of all the students. They pass around a box where there are five different pins, each with a different symbol of the school. Each student gets to choose a pin, with the symbol that they prefer. Then, the teaching team leads the students in saying a final script that recognizes that everyone is now part of the d.school community and that they have completed this class. Ritual finishes with pairs pinning each other.
You can adapt this ritual for the business world in multiple ways. One example could be when employees upskill their work profile with new roles such as data scientist, or design thinker, they need ways to feel accomplishment and a sense of new identity. At the end of their training, a similar pinning ritual can reinforce their identity and help them build their new role. This can also be applied when you form new teams and in need of a shared identity and purpose. The chosen symbol for pinning can crystallize the identity of the team.
3. For navigating transitions
When an employee starts off new position anxiety is there, or your team experiences a re-org followed by layoffs/firings, fear among the team members is paramount. To ease these kinds of transitions is possible with rituals. Ritual lens brings the acceptance of the emotional overload & awareness of the situation. It then creates a safe space to embrace it, even express it.
To give an example, our students created “Crash the Desk,” which focuses on onboarding an employee. Crash the Desk, is to welcome new hires with a surprise treasure hunt. When the employee is distracted away from the desk, their team-mates fill up their sad, empty new desk with personal objects. Then the employee must go on a hunt, talking to all their new co-workers to try to find the objects’ owners, and hearing stories about why they’re special.
4. For getting through conflict
When a conflict happens between team members, there are several ways to handle it, including ignoring it, going nuclear about it, or mitigating it. The last option is often the hardest one, however, once it’s handled with care, it can help a team bounce back, and even get better than before the conflict. That’s where rituals come into play again.
A conflict ritual fits mitigation scenario and utilizes the safe space quality of rituals. Such a ritual usually starts with reflection and continues with letting-go-of-negative-emotions, ending part might be a refresher for a new start, or more utilitarian and focuses on problem-solving. Depending on the team dynamics, a neutral outside facilitator can help run such a ritual for the team.
“Burn the Argument” is a conflict ritual, to deal with a fight that might have broken out on your team or in a meeting. It comes from one of our designer friends. She was addressing difficult emotions that emerged after a conflict between team members. A few days later, a manager ran this ritual with them, to help them move past the bitter feelings and also get the rest of the team back on track. Like the title says, it involves writing down the argument and feelings about it on pieces of paper, then tearing it up, and as a team, bringing it together. It’s a small symbolic act, but an explicit way to call out that conflict happened and that the team is deciding to move past it while still recognizing the emotions at stake.
5. For boosting creativity
Rituals are already woven into the fabric of peer-to-peer and peer-to-team relationships. However, to continue to grow, a team has to go beyond the usual, and get creative in its own capacity. Creativity rituals come into play for that purpose. In our work, we’ve found creativity particularly challenging as the concept often comes with a baggage of pre-conceived notions of creativity. Creativity is almost a taboo among engineering or bureaucracy-heavy cultures. You can introduce rituals into the existing routines as a way to infuse creativity.
“The Daily Drawing” is a small and easy creative ritual, that comes from designer Ayse Birsel. She starts each day by giving herself a short amount of time to do any kind of drawing at all, as long as the pen is moving across the page. The goal is to wake the brain up, but not to think too much, and not to let the blank page intimidate you. By having this little ritual of just doing any kind of drawing at all, you get yourself into a creative flow and stop all the anxieties from blocking you.
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