Paolo Guenzi writes in the Harvard Business Review on the powers of ritual, taking examples from the world of sports, bringing them to leaders of other organizations. He highlights the power of rituals to create a shared identity, stimulate emotions, reduce anxiety, build networks, and reinforce the desired behavior.
All organizations have rituals — from the mundane everyday routines (coffee breaks, tea time) to major, less frequent events like annual meetings and retirement parties. Smart leaders, however, recognize that rituals like these and others are levers for improving the organization’s performance and they take the creation and nurturing of rituals very seriously. It’s a subject that I study closely, focusing particularly on the lessons that can be found for business leaders from the world of sport. From that work I’ve observed that ritual acts on team performance in four ways:
It creates a shared identity. Successful sports coaches typically use rituals to build social bonds between team members. As Gianluca Vialli, former player and head coach of Premier League’s Chelsea, told us:
“At Chelsea we had an ‘initiation ritual’ for newcomers. During the training camp at the beginning of the season, the new players had to get up on a table, in front of all their teammates, and sing a song that represented their country. For example, Roberto di Matteo and I sang ‘Volare’ … It was a way to get players who came from different cultures to come together. After getting over the natural initial sense of embarrassment, we felt accepted, and truly became a part of the group.”
An extreme example of identity building ritual in the corporate world comes from Grundfos, one of the world’s leading pump manufacturers headquartered in Bjerringbro, Denmark. To encourage teambuilding, the company periodically convenes a “Grundfos Olympics,” in which 1,000 employees from 55 countries. This sports event includes an Olympics-like opening ceremony, a “Parade of Nations”, in which local residents participate, and a Grand Finale Party. The company also arranges for foreign colleagues to be housed in the homes of their Danish counterparts during the five-day event, which has proven to be an incredibly effective way to build strong interpersonal bonds and transmit key corporate values throughout the entire Group.
It brings team members’ external networks into the family. Good coaches know that team performance can be strongly affected by external parties. Here’s an insightful anecdote by Gigi Delneri, former head coach of AS Roma and FC Juventus:
“When I was a player, I had a coach with a special talent for creating team spirit. His secret? His wife. He had realized that the biggest enemies of team cohesion are envy and jealousy. He understood that the players’ wives and girlfriends fueled these feelings. They often have the tendency to compare how many minutes other teammates play, how much they earn… and this deteriorates team climate in the end. So he asked his wife to organize get-togethers and periodic meetings with these women. They ended up meeting regularly, once a week, mainly at tea time, they became friends, and ultimately all team members became great friends.”
This practice is mirrored in some corporate rituals. A number of companies I’ve looked at host “Open Door Days” that bring relevant stakeholders into the company’s “house”. As in the sports example above, such rituals can create goodwill in people outside the firm who can affect its performance or the performance of people in the company.
It stimulates the emotions and reduces anxiety. The leading example of ritual as stimulus in sport is the legendary Haka, a Maori posture dance performed by the New Zealand rugby team before their matches. It expresses the team’s pride in their heritage and teammates. Neuroscientific research shows that rituals like the Haka trigger feelings of connectivity, timelessness, and meaning, which stimulate mental flow states. These, in turn, reduce anxiety and increase energy and focus.
A few companies also use highly stylized rituals in this way. A marketing manager from the French Saint Gobain Group shared a rather extraordinary example with us:
“With my team, before presenting to the Board our marketing plans, we’re always very nervous. So we’ve invented a funny ritual [that] works as an incantation to avoid bad luck: we touch each other’s asses and all together we scream ‘Shit!’ I believe this works well, because then we all smile and feel much more relaxed!”
It reinforces desired behaviors. One pillar of Bosch Automotive Aftermarket’s recent sales strategy change was to foster entrepreneurship and risk taking among Key Account Managers. To do this, the company ritualized the weekly meeting with the KAMs, as reported by their sales manager:
“Historically the company, like most successful German organizations, had always been very hierarchical. KAMs simply used to do their best to execute what their managers told them, but they didn’t take initiative. As a consequence, we had meetings where most KAMs said nothing at all. So we introduced the brainstorming part of the meeting, characterized by the yellow/red card game: if a KAM says nothing, (s)he gets the yellow card and has to leave the room. And if (s)he does it again, (s)he gets the red card and simply cannot attend the meeting next week. The message here was: just don’t come next time if you have nothing to say. By introducing this ritual we could arouse creativity and people who had always kept silent until then, when forced to speak, would often contribute the best ideas.”
In all the high performing sports teams and companies we studied we found leaders making extensive use of ritual. Indeed, in the sports context, we found that creating or reviving club rituals was almost the first thing that a new coach would do — especially in a team turnaround situation. Smart business leaders do the same, and if performance is struggling at your company, maybe a bit more ritual can deliver that sense of shared identity, stakeholder commitment, emotional energy, and productive behavior that you’re looking for.