The Importance Of Rituals

A series of alarm clocks on a blue background
Building systems of support in the workplace may be less about trust exercises, and more about the day-to-day routine.

There is an odd species of human‐only things called rituals, which, by connecting a series of physical activities with a set of psychological effects of enormous breadth, create a body‐mind bridge. These various rituals are bizarrely and alchemically powerful in all sorts of ways.

But not just generally powerful. Their power is all of a kind, and in a constantly changing world, it is a power that is hugely important, for it is the power of bringing order.

Rituals reduce the variance of the future. By diminishing anxiety, they narrow the risk of poor performance in the task we’re just about to begin. By helping us address grief, they increase our sense of control in the days ahead. By increasing the tightness of the team or family, they bring order and cohesion to it and offer a clearer understanding of who is part of it or not, the sorts of things it will do, and the way in which it will do them in the immediate future and beyond. By giving us, through their repetitions, a series of anchor points out into the future, they inoculate us just a little against uncertainty in that future. Rituals are the great governors, of emotions and of time.

Here’s what they look like at work.

For me at Cisco, one ritual took the form of a weekly all‐hands meeting for everyone who reported to me. The thirty‐minute call every Wednesday had three standing agenda items: first, a shout‐out for anyone on the team with a birthday or a service anniversary that week (this was the only segment of the meeting where we used a slide); second, a two‐ or three‐minute pass down from each of my direct reports, letting everyone know what they and their teams were up to this week; and third, a 10‐ to 15‐minute pass down from me, during which I would tell everyone as much as I could about what was being discussed in our organization’s leadership team, what was on my plate and what my priorities were, what I had found interesting in the last week, and (at the request of the team) something that was going on in my life outside work. It wasn’t required that anyone attend the call—we made it entirely voluntary—but nevertheless on a weekly basis around 90 percent of my organization would join.

This wasn’t, in fact, the first iteration of a weekly call that I had tried. Earlier versions were more produced, and had agendas and guest speakers and project updates and much more slideware. They worked, but not nearly as well as the simple form we finally arrived at. With all the meeting paraphernalia stripped away, what the team heard was leaders talking about what was going on in real words—conversation, not presentation. If someone had nothing much to say, they said nothing much. And I learned, as we went along, that the updates I gave that were most appreciated were those where I felt I was right on the edge of saying too much, and breaching some confidence or other. The more I forced myself up to the line, the more valuable the conversation was, quite possibly because it felt, then, as though I was sharing more of what was secret. It’s now a few years since I moved on and the calls came to an end—and yet people still tell me how much they miss them. I do, too.

One of the leaders who reported to me supplemented this all‐hands with two further weekly meetings for her team—a 30‐minute call on Monday in which each team member shared their top priority for the week and how heavy their workload was (which enabled other people to offer assistance or moral support as needed), and a 30‐minute call on Friday in which team members could call out great work done by a peer, or thank someone for their support during the week. Her weekly cadence, then, was not just about getting information to her team; it was also aimed at providing a foundation (and, gently, an expectation) for people to support one another.

Now, there are plenty of teams in the world that, when they (or more often their leader) want to focus on teamwork or trust or another meta how‐are‐we‐doing topic, hold some sort of a special session, often with an outside facilitator or consultant, and occasionally even with (universally dreaded, if we’re honest) team‐building exercises. The curious feature of this sort of approach is that, while it aims to improve how people work together, the first action is to step away from that work, and to talk about trust and the other stuff as though they can then somehow be grafted back onto the day‐to‐day work of the team. What the team leader in my organization was doing was the opposite. Rather than talking about how people on the team felt, or how to build trust, or what insights they had about one another, in the hope that that would lead to more effective work, she instead designed a ritual to help people support one another and collaborate more effectively—to put points on the board together—figuring that feelings of trust and community would result from this as the weeks passed.

This illustrates another characteristic of rituals: Often, they operate by a kind of cunning misdirection. The things they give us—increased certainty, community, safety and more—are often not addressed directly in the ritual itself, but instead emerge over time from its repetition, and are strangely more robust as a result. We didn’t talk much about a sense of belonging in my weekly team call, but a sense of belonging resulted all the same.

Excerpted with permission from The Problem With Change by Ashley Goodall. Copyright © 2024 by Ashley Goodall. Used with permission from Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Little, Brown and Co.

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