The Power of Team Rituals
A few years ago my team and I regularly travelled to Myanmar on a client project. We loved working on that project although it didn’t come without challenges.
First, there was the usual discomfort of long distance travel. Not only were we far away from our families, having virtually zero connectivity, the project also required a huge amount of energy and stamina.
On top of that, there was the continuous need to decode an unfamiliar culture of our host country.
No wonder that in the evenings, we’d feel drained, exhausted and sometimes... a bit cranky.
Our usual treat during that project was a nice dinner together. It was during one of those dinners that we spontaneously developed the “Ask me anything” game.
The rules were pretty simple. We’d collectively come up with three questions for one person in the group. They were designed to reveal something about them that we didn’t yet know.
Somehow, the questions turned out to be deep. Thought-provoking. Challenging.
They made us reflect on things we haven’t thought about before.
I still remember some of them:
- “If someone accidentally used a reset button on your life, what would you rebuild exactly the way it is now? What would you take a pass on? What new stuff would you want to experiment with?”
- “What was the most adventurous thing that you’ve ever done in your life? Why?"
- “What are you most afraid of?”
Frankly, at times it felt like standing at the edge of a cliff. Taking the plunge was terrifying.
To minimise that feeling, we gave the person in the hot seat control over which of the three questions they’d go for. Giving people the choice (and making sure that what we shared stayed in the group) was like giving people the rope. Suddenly this crazy, almost suicidal leap into the unknown, became "merely"... a bungie jump.
It was exciting, eye opening and empowering to be a part of these conversations. We always had a sense of a deeper bond, connection and belonging afterwards. We felt seen and appreciated. Ready for going the extra mile on the next day.
When I reflect on that experience now, I can see that this spontaneous ritual served a deep and profound purpose of which we were not fully aware back then.
It transformed us into a family-like troupe who helped one another find relief from stress and discomfort of being on the road. It connected us to each other and to what really mattered - both in our lives and in our work. It gave us the safe space to reflect, make sense of our reality and to identify what we truly valued.
In hindsight, our ritual seems to have served as a team culture reinforcing mechanism. It communicated a powerful message:
"It’s safe to open up. It’s ok to be vulnerable. We value reflection and self-development in this team. You are important to us and we want to know more about what makes you tick. You belong in this team; in fact, you are an integral part of our tribe and this is exactly how you fit in."
The fact that our "Ask me anything game" worked this way comes as no surprise in the light of anthropological research which suggests that rituals forge stronger relationships, help rally people around common purpose and values, unify people’s experiences and enable transformation.
We are now beginning to understand that the power of ritual helps teams bond and achieve better results.
According to Paulo Guenzi, in his HBR article, rituals impact teams in the following ways:
- They create a shared identity
- They stimulate emotions and reduce anxiety
- They reinforce desired behaviours
Harvard Business School Professor, Alison Wood Brooks, discovered that performing a ritual before entering a stressful situation can reduce feelings of anxiety and improve performance. French sociologist, Emile Durkheim suggests that rituals maintain social order, develop group cohesion and strong interpersonal relationships. A study by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology found that rituals enhance communication by "eliciting arousal, directing attention, enhancing memory and improving associations."
Other research suggests that performing a ritual makes us value things more, demonstrates that rituals are used to stimulate innovation, influence responses to environmental changes, convey rationality, challenge dominant values and reduce uncertainty.
So, does your team have established rituals? What are they? What function do they serve and what do they help you achieve?