Throw old rituals overboard!

Rituals are phenomena of communication. They consolidate conventions and promote belonging. Nevertheless (or because of that) they hinder transformations. Clean out and create new ones!

We find numerous rituals in our everyday professional life. While we hardly notice some of them (salutations in greetings, procedures for conversations with superiors, …), others are conspicuous by their ceremonial (internal promotion interviews, farewells, …). Independent of their observability, they all create (behavioral) security and therefore, unfortunately, also conventions and power - and ultimately also prevent change. Many leaders underestimate their elasticity: Thus, change impulses (e.g. a cross-departmental initiative for customer acquisition) seem to show concrete results, but mostly without lasting effect.

Small exercise: If you would like to feel the implicit power of a ritual, then sit down spontaneously on your daughter’s or son’s chair at home during dinner. You will then immediately feel the resistance of a ritual - and see what this ritual does to and from other people.

Favorable and unfavorable effects

Rituals have two faces. On the one hand, they create clarity about what behavior is desirable and what is not. On the other hand, they convey culture and values that should guide the coexistence among employees in the company and thus shape topics such as cooperation, communication, tolerance, diversity and transparency. Rituals make the identity of the company tangible and they strengthen the employees’ sense of belonging. These are fundamentally beneficial effects.

On the other hand, rituals also create collective control apparatuses that ensure compliance with the rules, roles and expectations associated with the rituals - and sanction deviations. However, since they lack an official organ of power, these apparatuses use unofficial and often indirect punishments: mobbing, withdrawal of communication, exclusion. Punishments, in other words, that are usually exercised by no clearly identifiable punishing party and yet inflict painful, psychological wounds. These are rather less favorable effects.

Whether favorable or unfavorable, both effects lead, first, to people subordinating themselves to a ritual (even if it probably does not feel that way to many) and, second, to changes that do not adequately take existing rituals into account simply being undermined, without perpetrators or concrete facts of the crime being found.

Mutual dependencies

There is an interesting relationship between rituals and ritualized: they need each other. Whether you look at your private or your professional context, you will find that rituals only work if they are supported by a sufficiently large crowd. In turn, they provide these supporters with the opportunity to distinguish themselves from others, to maintain specific (implicit) power structures, and to control, influence, and sanction others.

Further, rituals require and promote a simple black and white worldview. They know no gray areas and are simple either-or prompts. You either support a ritual or you don’t. A back-and-forth, a both/and perspective is usually not tolerated by the control apparatus. In short, rituals do foster a sense of community - but only for the ritualized. The others are excluded.

And finally, rituals simplify the lives of employees in a company. Without rituals, leadership and control would be enormously time-consuming and entail high transaction costs. Thus, there is also a dependency between rituals and companies. While rituals facilitate the handling of the existing, they simultaneously inhibit the development and integration of the new.

Note: This is especially and specifically true for decentralized, self-organizing, socio- or holocratic organizations. These currently dominate the discussion about Purpose / Sinn / Zweck, because they realize that only rituals promote internal cohesion and enable a distinction between inside and outside, despite all openness, diversity and inclusion. So if you are currently thinking about Purpose in your company, ask yourself which new rituals you are introducing with it, which existing rituals you are attacking, and how you are helping employees to deal with the conflicts that will inevitably unfold.

Consequences for transformations

Rituals drive behavior. Most corporate transformations require employees to behave differently during and after the transformation. In the meantime, many leaders have recognized that it is of little use to repeat the rational reasons for a transformation like a prayer mill. After all, it is primarily emotions that oppose transformations: Is there still a need for me? Will I be able to meet the new requirements? Who will help me or am I alone? What am I losing?

As if this were not challenging enough, transformations awaken not only fears and worries, but also rituals that, like watchdogs sleeping deep in the corporate basement, suddenly start up, baring their impressive teeth and barking wildly at their chains to prevent you from approaching them or existing rituals.

Or in other words: You will mostly discover rituals only when you want or need to change something.

If you want to know your company, try to change it.

Since leadership always implies transformation, you will inevitably have to deal with the impact of rituals. Then your arguments should be understood and supported by a majority of employees. And then your innovations should be so attractive that the conservation effect of old rituals fades away. If you don’t succeed, you can either command and sanction (and thus launch a new ritual at the same time) or you leave this system.

I therefore suggest that you not only justify transformations strategically, but also prepare and lead them with rituals in mind. And because rituals only make themselves felt when they are really under attack, you should regularly discuss the multi-layered and ambiguous effects of transformations (preferably together with a leadership team and selective, external support). This will help you recognize how existing rituals work, what arguments they use to persuade employees to adopt a different ritual. You can only clean up existing rituals if you replace them - in other words, create new rituals of your own. Simply start by tracking down rituals that are getting in the way of your change intentions. Prominent examples are: Looking the other way instead of speaking up; preferring stale smells; threatening to withdraw love.

More articles