Rituals point to the life of the culture

THE MAIN POINT (82 seconds reading time)

(The image above is taken from Toben Rick at www.tobenrick.eu.)  Many things in an organization are going on below the surface, but being aware of these is key in leading the direction of an organization.

One of the elements of the culture that a leader can manage is the rituals and rites. My organization had a time when we accomplished that leadership responsibility by instituting a ritual that quickly became an enduring rite of the organization. The new ritual was a weekly (at first) gathering where people were recognized in a small-but-recognizable way for the good things they did. The gathering was light-hearted but clearly appreciative of those who contributed. After the crunch passed, the ritual became institutionalized as a rite (monthly). Harold Kurstedt

It’s amazing how many different rituals, taboos, rites, and ceremonies we have in the organization: some obvious and some buried below the surface; some huge and some trivial. As an example ritual, I’ll describe one of my favorite that happens to be a social ritual. This ritual is sometimes called the “howdy ritual.” How do you say hello? Wave? Smile? Say something? What do you say? “How are you?” Do you really want to know? No. The correct answer to “How are you?” is: good or well. In some countries, the howdy question is: “Where are you going?” Do they really want to know? No. The correct answer is: over there. In Grand Forks, North Dakota, where I live, a person says hello when passing cars on country roads by sticking raising 4 fingers up from the steering wheel as you pass, whether you know them or not. If you wave your whole hand instead, you don’t belong.

Do you speak to the boss by using his or her first name? When you were in a university setting, did you use your professor’s first name? Harold recounts the ritual of asking for the Dean in the Dean’s Office. You wouldn’t ever ask, “Is Joe in?” You also wouldn’t ask, “Is Mr. Jones in?” You wouldn’t even ask, “Is Professor Jones in?” or “Is Dr. Jones in?” The correct ritual is to ask, “Is The Dean in?” It’s appropriate to look heavenward when asking. When in industry with clients in Ford and Corning, Harold’s organization was responsive to the different cultures of our clients. When Ford called, the secretary knew to refer to Harold as Harold or Mr. Kurstedt. When Corning called, the right term was Dr. Kurstedt.

Hazing rituals are social rituals and are part of socialization. Socialization is what organizations do to condition new people to the culture. For example, my experience at the Virginia (Tech) was full of (near) hazing rituals; and socialization was important to bring everyone to the same level – the appropriate level for that university. (The level for freshmen was the level of a rat. Therefore, all freshmen – now first-year students – were called “rats.” For example, crawling through the mud near the duck pond and using your head as a bulldozer for the sand and grime was a definite “rite of passage” in the process. The hazing rituals were many, intricate, and violation brought severe punishment. We don’t have such dramatic rituals in organizations today (even at Virginia Tech), but rituals are there and they’re important. Rituals tell you how to behave in certain situations. The rituals I’ve been describing are for social situations.

THE FOLLOW UP ( 115 seconds reading time)

Rituals are those simple combinations of repetitive behaviors that we learn to do automatically. Taboos are those behaviors that we learn not to do. Rituals and taboos aren’t written down, and a new person learns them either by having a good mentor or by trial and error. Nothing is too trivial to be made into a ritual. Organizations can have social rituals, work rituals, management rituals, recognition rituals, and the cultural extravaganza. A rite brings together many of the culture elements (values, rituals, norms, and more) into a public presentation. Celebrations, such as annual meetings, are occasions for including rites and reinforcing the culture. In the university, graduation ceremonies are celebrations. Weddings and funerals are celebrations.

Rites that have been recognized as pervasive among organizations are rites of passage, degradation, enhancements, renewal, conflict reduction, integration, creation, transition, and parting.

One of the elements of the culture that a leader can manage is the rituals and rites. My organization had a time when our major contract was winding down and our several proposals for work to replace the contract were still being evaluated. Our people were stressed about the usual crunch of finishing all the deliverables in the existing contract, the extra effort in following through with the proposal process, and worrying about their jobs. In my organization, everyone was on “soft funding.” Soft funding means no work, no pay. The leadership responsibility was to help people shift their focus from the “half-empty glass” to the “half-full glass.” We accomplished that leadership responsibility by instituting a ritual that quickly became an enduring rite of the organization.

The new ritual was a weekly (at first) gathering where people were recognized in a small-but-recognizable way for the good things they did. The recognition was equal for those who provided an assist and those who accomplished a win. No contribution was too small. Contributions involving responsiveness to others within and outside our organizations were especially appreciated. The gathering was light-hearted but clearly appreciative of those who contributed. After the crunch passed, the ritual became institutionalized as a rite (monthly). The ritual, and the eventual rite, involved small tokens added to a master symbol. For those who follow football, it was similar to the small decals that many universities give out for game-time contributions to put on each player’s helmet. In our case we gave each recognized person a brass dated feather to attach to a walnut eagle plaque. (In my organization, the eagle symbolized responsiveness – our core value.) Anybody could recognize anybody else. Twenty-five years later, I can take you to offices around our university where people from my organization continue to proudly display their eagles with feathers.

One company we work with has a traditional “beer hour” that’s much more than beer and much more than an hour. This ritual is a pervasive rite among offices throughout the country. The values are camaraderie and contribution. The unwritten rule is that everyone participates although neither beer nor an hour is mandatory.

As you consider the social, work, management, and recognition issues in your workplace, can you identify rituals already in place? As you identify a ritual, what organizational value does the ritual bring to life? As a leader, what ritual can you suggest that will help people recognize the organization’s values and motivate people to look forward optimistically in what can be difficult times for many (either at work or at home)?