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Why You Need Team Rituals (and When to Use Them)

Rituals bring the culture to life and have become more important for remote teams. Learn why and when to design team rituals.

By Gustavo Razzetti

July 31, 2020

All organizations have team rituals — from unnoticed mundane Happy Hours to more profound events like rites of passage. Smart leaders recognize the value of rituals, especially now that most teams are working remotely. They understand not only their symbolic importance, but also their potential to change organizational behavior for the better.

Rituals help create a shared identity, align teams, and move them into action. Most importantly, they help bring the culture into life in a human, engaging way that fosters a deep sense of belonging.

Team Ritual design is something I enjoy a lot when coaching teams and organizations. Not only is it a vital component of The Culture Design Canvas, it’s also something that immediately catches people’s attention. Whether we’re helping a culture transform their culture or running one of our Masterclasses, people usually fall in love with Team Rituals.

I’ve written several posts on the topic: The Power of Team Rituals, How to Design Team Rituals, How Rituals Boost Culture, and How to Use the Ritual Design Canvas, among others. In this piece, I will focus on helping you identify why and when to use team rituals. Let’s review the different challenges a team or organization can face and how to use rituals to address those issues.

Why Rituals Matter for Remote Work

Rituals help increase appreciation of everyday accomplishments; they turn the ordinary into something meaningful. Toasting, for example, transforms the act of drinking into a celebratory experience. A toast is a ritual that expresses honor and goodwill; it’s about celebrating and honoring others or something that participants have achieved together.

Rituals are welcoming. At Airbnb, people form a human tunnel through which new employees run. This rite of passage is practiced to welcome colleagues and build on Airbnb’s purpose (belong anywhere).

Rituals help develop positive behaviors. New Zealand’s All Black clean their host’s locker room after a rugby match. Leaving the dressing room spotless is a way to show gratitude but, most importantly, to practice humility – especially after a victory.

Team Rituals help create a sense of belonging. New employees at Google (“Nooglers”) wear beanie hats with propellers on top. This ritual, which might feel ridiculous for outsiders, makes new hires feel part of an exclusive group.

Most importantly, rituals help transform workplace culture one step at a time. Kuli Kuli has developed the practice of celebrating small wins by banging a loud gong. Atlassian implemented the Gringotts Board of Directors  during design review sessions to remind participants to ask helpful questions.

When to Use Team Rituals

There are four key areas where Team Rituals are an effective way to create positive change:

  • To drive excitement across a particular project
  • To keep people engaged across the employee cycle
  • To accelerate cultural transformation, reinforcing specific elements
  • To address cultural tensions that hinder collaboration or productivity

I will now share a chart to understand each journey – and for you to identify opportunities to bring rituals to life. You don’t need to have a ritual for each of these moments, especially if you don’t have any. Start small and keep it simple.

Design Rituals Across a Specific Project

From team forming and driving alignment to accomplishing the goal, team rituals can help launch, energize, and keep a team on track across an entire project.

Use the following chart as guidance. These are some of the critical phases; identify others that might be relevant to your team or project. Start with an interesting question to uncover how team rituals can keep the team focused, aligned, and excited.

Flipboard has a weekly ritual called “Mock O’Clock.” Every week, the team convenes and shares their work in progress; everyone gets a sneak peek into new features or tools that the company is developing and can provide feedback on the fly.

Rituals are also critical for remote teams and remote workers. At BetterCloud, employees like to show off their dogs when they have a video call to strengthen personal relationships among team members. Simon Sinek’s team practices The Huddle, a weekly video call ritual devoted to building connections. Rather than discussing business topics, teammates share what’s in their hearts and on their minds. This ritual is the virtual version of an office watercooler.

The Design Team at Atlassian practices virtual creative critiques. One designer presents the work from the group and gets feedback from the other team. By rotating who presents, the ritual ensures that every team member gets a chance to share.

Use Rituals to Keep Remote Employees Engaged

Smart organizations use rituals to turn each moment of the employee cycle into a meaningful opportunity. Use the following chart – and questions – to help uncover opportunities to design rituals that will keep people engaged across the employee cycle.

Camino Information Services gets every new hire an Angry Bird desk plush toy of their preference, one that fits their personality. Atlassian welcomes new employees by giving them a paid vacation before they even start working – the Australian software unicorn shows how much it trusts its employees.

Zappos’ “New Hire Training” is an onboarding program where everybody has to spend at least 30 hours in customer service, regardless of their role. The online retailer offers the “Pay to Quit” bonus to new employees as a rite of passage – people choose between the tempting offer of getting a check and leaving, or saying no to $ 4,000 and staying.

Design Team Rituals to Address Cultural Tensions

A tension is anything other than total neutrality. Cultural Tensions are neither negative nor positive – they just highlight something that’s going on with the team. One or more individuals usually sense them. Cultural Tensions manifest in the shape of emotions (how we feel), mindsets (how we think), and behaviors (how we act).

The Cultural Tensions Canvas is our tool to capture and identify the emotions, mindsets, and behaviors that move a team forward or get it stuck. Most of the time, when consulting an organization, we use this canvas to identify and prioritize tensions and have the team choose the one they want to solve by designing a team ritual.

Tensions can happen on one of the elements (emotions, mindsets, or behaviors) or across all of them. The Start, Stop, Continue formula can also help. Review the existing emotions, mindsets, and behaviors, then define which ones the team should stop, start, or continue doing.

For example, a team we were working with discovered that one of the critical tensions was feeling ignored by their manager, who continually interrupted people in every meeting. Although he didn’t do it on purpose, it created a lot of frustration and anger – everyone was checking out. The team built a ritual to start calling their boss out in a fun yet effective way.

Learn more about the Cultural Tensions Canvas here.

Create Rituals to Accelerate Cultural Transformation

Culture is what we repeatedly do – it happens by accident or by design. Team rituals not only bring the existing culture to life, but can also shape it or transform it.

Use the following chart to identify which key areas of your culture you want to focus on. The specific questions will help you guide the team ritual design process.  

Southwest Airlines has a fun, loving culture that encourages people to bring their full selves to work. The company practices a ritual that has gone viral: its hilarious safety announcements. Rather than repeating the boring safety announcement, as most airlines do, Southwest encourages employees to create their own humorous version, building empathy and connection with its passengers.

The low-cost airline also practices Cultural Blitzes – unexpected events that a group of employees run to show their appreciation to flight crews. This ritual includes giving snacks and good wishes for the day ahead. The key surprise includes cleaning the plane between flights – usually the responsibility of the flight attendants who were on the flight.

Many organizations have rituals to increase mistake-tolerance and develop a learning culture. Tata, the automotive company, believes that mistakes are goldmines. Rajan Tata, founder and chairman of Tata, created a prize for the best-failed idea called “Dare to Try.”

At Spotify, teams have regular ‘Fail-fikas’ (FIKA is the Swedish word for having a coffee and a chat together). This ritual encourages people to share their mistakes and learn from each other’s errors. Similarly, Nixon McInness practices the Church of Fail. Employees gather once a month and everyone gets their chance to stand behind a pulpit to confess their sins (I mean, mistakes).

Your team or company culture is the result of what people repeatedly do. Don’t let it happen by accident—design meaningful team rituals.

To learn how to design team rituals - virtual or not –, check out our step-by-step approach using the Team Ritual Design Canvas. Or reach out to discuss how we can help you.

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