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Rituals, the path to engaging leadership

“Ritual is necessary for us to know anything.”                                                                               – Ken KeseyThe ability to engage in rituals, or create rituals when there are none, is probably one of the most powerful aspects of building engagement, and yet it is probably one of the least understood and used aspects of creating successful teams, functions and organisations.  

Experience tells us that it is the thoughtful application of rituals that gives us an unconditional starting point from which to:

  • build healthy relationships, 
  • enhance our leadership style,
  • strengthen B2B relationships, and 
  • achieve results today and over the longer term.  

The examples below demonstrate the ways in which rituals can be used to contribute to sustainable business relationships and positively impact the way we do our work.

Rituals in On Boarding 
Make the important organisational rituals explicit. Normally, we stumble our way through guessing what the accepted rituals may be until we think we have it, or someone is kind enough to steer us in the right direction.  From an on boarding perspective, review your processes to see whether you allow for organisational rituals to be easily understood.  After all, when we are new to an organisation it is the observing and practice of rituals unique to our new organisation that helps us fit in.

Rituals and Leadership
In leadership, the role of rituals in building employee engagement and healthy relationships can never be underestimated.  When getting to know your people, it is often advised to get some one on one time. The one on one meeting process is a good way to start a relationship.  Keeping them going, and creating a ritualistic experience is absolutely vital to maintaining individual relationships.  Throughout the week things can get hectic and you may not always be available; but if your people know that come rain, hail or shine they have their weekly one on one with you, then you are in a good place. 

In a virtual team setting this is just as important, even if more effort is required to create and maintain the rituals.  One of my most effective leaders was based in New Jersey whilst I was in Sydney…half a world away, and yet I knew that he was available each week, at the same time whether I had something to talk about or not.

Virtual or not, the little things such as the morning coffee is a ritual that allows for simple connection.  Acknowledge that those moments of ritual become cornerstone moments in your leadership relationship.  Even in regular small doses, they signal your availability, and allow your team to experience you as a person, and not just their leader.


Rituals and the Expatriate
For the expatriate who is seeking to fit into their host country, the role of rituals becomes even more important.  By seeking to understand the cultural rituals, the expatriate is able to pick up valuable cues that will aid their assimilation.  For example, an Australian working in France may think that taking lunch with their colleagues isn’t such a big deal, and opt to take lunch at their desk instead.  By doing this, they are missing out on an important ritual, one that is sacred for many Latin based cultures.  That is; lunch is a social engagement and a means for connecting with colleagues – mostly without discussing work.  Then there is the other ritual that follows lunch – taking coffee together.  This is where work is discussed, but often with colleagues from other parts of the office.  This ritual allows for connection, gossip and sharing of what is ‘really’ happening in the company.  Beyond these examples; at the most basic level, the act of seeking to understand and participate in local rituals is a valuable and simple way for the expatriate to build connections quickly.  It demonstrates an open-mindedness and a deep level of respect, and in most cases, escalates the assimilation of the expatriate into the new team.

Rituals and Team Building
The best teams often have a number of rituals that they don’t even realise.  They are the moments that act like glue and bind the team together.  I once led a team that was considered by onlookers as high performing, punching above their weight, and above all – tight.  We were often operating in that place of high trust.  When asked about this over the years, my reflections often come back to the fact that we created many ritualistic moments that reflected the heart and soul of rituals – acknowledgment and recognition.  We took the time when I joined the team to create many moments of connection that became rituals.  Some of them already existed; others we built on. As a team we often took coffee together, and regular morning teas or lunches taken together, celebrated birthdays and other special events in the lives of the team members. 

Underpinning this were our non-negotiable rituals of one on one meetings and weekly team meetings.  Built into our one on ones and team meetings was a sub-ritual of allowing for more personal exchanges and sharing before moving onto business.  Individually they may not seem like significant events.  Collectively these rituals became a larger element, representative of what it meant to be a member of (and ‘belong’ to) our team.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we weren’t busy; our team ran a national help-desk as well as delivered a full schedule of training and coaching for employees around the country.  This is where I personally learnt the importance of discipline and valuing the time spent acknowledging ‘who’ is in the team.  And since then, the teams I have seen perform consistently above and beyond as an engaged unit have this same value placed on the discipline of maintaining healthy rituals.

Rituals and Mergers & Acquisitions
Another place for the effective integration of rituals is in the M&A process.  It is critical that the companies involved establish rapport quickly, and it is here that rituals can speed up the process of connection and integration.  Seeking to understand existing rituals will provide significant insight into to the culture of the other organisation.  The M&A may look great on paper, but if the way cultural rituals are enacted in each company are poles apart then you have something to think about.  Remember that rituals are behavioural and driven by a deeper level of collective belief around what’s important and what’s not important to be doing; and these aren’t so easy to shift.  This is more easily seen in cross-cultural M&A’s where the national culture differences are often quite noticeable.  In domestic situations it is looking at the subtleties.  Does anyone get allocated the best car parks? Do people start early and finish late? Who gets involved early in projects – finance or R&D?  Often, factors such as this may be unspoken, but deeply ingrained rituals that give you insight to the differences that may need to be dealt with in the transition period.  

The final word
The creative use of rituals can open the door for a deeper level of connection.  This shouldn’t be surprising; as a human race we have been engaging in rituals for a long time to help distinguish one group from another and create an unspoken language that helps to define who we are and who we accept.  When we engage in rituals different to our own, or what we are used to, it isn’t about compromising our values or ways of doing things. We are however signalling that we are interested in the person or group sitting opposite us.  We are acknowledging who they are, what they bring to the relationship, and that we want them to participate in the relationship. At all levels of an organisation, this is beating heart of employee engagement, and business to business success.  So why not use it as a thoughtful lever for greater success? 

Ponte Valle Insight: Rituals, the path to engaging leadership

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