Rituals: milestones that bind your company tribe
Rituals are the periodic events that unify a tribe. We examine rituals in religion, understand the core elements that make them successful, and learn how to apply them to our company's culture
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Rituals are the periodic events that unify a tribe. Members performing the same ritual feel a sense of kinship and unity.
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Rituals create milestones. We eagerly await their arrival, often bonding with fellow tribe members to prepare for the celebrations. During the ceremonies, we come together to perform actions in unison, like chanting, praying, costuming, marching, or dancing. After the rituals are complete, we add to our tribal history and reminisce about those experiences.
In this post, we’ll examine examples of religious rituals, break them down to the essential elements, and finally consider how you can apply these to your business.
The Miracle of Ritual
Every year, millions of Americans buy evergreen conifer trees, place them inside their homes, and come together to intricately adorn them with lights and tassels. They scour retailers for gifts, engage friends and lovers to find the perfect gift (or the perfect price), and synchronously celebrate the big reveal on December 25th. Tens of millions of people worldwide gather together to recite a common prayer and recount the history of their tribe.
Every participant in this secular and religious interplay of rites and retail knows the general process. Children (or new members of the community) are quickly indoctrinated into the rules of the rituals and the exuberance that ensues.
This spectacle, of course, is Christmas. This major holiday coalesces Christians of all denominations and has also extended into common secular American culture.
Other examples of rituals in faith:
Bris and baby-naming ceremonies
Easter egg hunts
Weddings, with all the faith-specific sub-rituals
Fasting, like during Ramadan or Yom Kippur
Lighting candles on Shabbat
Sunday church service, including the Eucharist / Holy Communion
What makes rituals successful
In most modern religions, rituals have evolved to stay relevant. I believe that many of the rituals we practice (and how we practice them!) are the results of hundreds of years of A/B testing.
What are the common elements that endured?
Precise timing or triggers so everyone in the faith precisely knows when to gather.
Gathering of people, often to reconnect with members of their community they might not see regularly.
Performing actions in unison, like chanting, applying henna/Mehendi, or dancing.
A nod towards spirituality, whereby the ritual cleanses the soul, prepares us for a future, or gives us pause to honor the past.
Collection of ritual-specific iconography, such as costuming or totems
How to build rituals into your company's culture
The first step is to notice what’s already happening around you. Chances are, your colleagues have already begun adding a unique spin to weekly lunches, team huddles, and offsites.
The best, quirkiest rituals are developed organically. Your job is to notice the ritual, ingrain it into your core practices, and use the above elements to optimize it for maximum effect.
Start by looking at existing milestones and gatherings within your company:
New employee joins
Anniversary of company launch
New product release
Weekly team meetings
Weekly/monthly "beer nights"
Monthly hackathon/mockathan where people share cool things they've been working on
Monthly (or quarterly) company-wide meetings
Annual off-sites or conventions (Pinterest's KnitCon, Adobe's Design Summit, etc.)
You don't need to go over the top with fanfare for each. Put on your best Kappa Sigma Phi social chair hat and think of minor adjustments that give character to an event.
For example, when a new employee joins, provide them with a mug and a Sharpie marker; ask them to walk around the office to collect as many coworker signatures as possible on their first day; this creates a reason for them to interact with all their coworkers. It's simple and quirky, but it's something memorable and leaves each employee with an icon/artifact that reminds them of their first day at the firm. You don’t have to do this exact idea, but challenge yourself to ideate something creative that goes beyond the basic Day One i9 paperwork!
Rituals for remote workers and distributed teams
Rituals are much more impactful when conducted in person. I highly recommend organizing in-person gatherings throughout the year if you have a distributed workforce.
Vlad Gyster at Airbo organizes quarterly all-hands get-togethers for their teams, a reasonable cadence in the early, high-growth stages. Meanwhile, Ravi Balasubramanian at Sandbox has shifted from quarterly to a more manageable semi-annual cadence as his team grew past 25 employees. These ritualistic gatherings incorporate intense work sessions that align employees towards a shared vision and social events to connect their team on a human level. [insert examples of specific rituals at the events]
As your company grows, doing so many all-hands meetings in person may become unwieldy. I recommend you switch to a cadence of an annual all-hands and a quarterly team-based gathering.
In between those in-person events, here are some ideas for rituals you can do over a chat or video call:
End your weekly or monthly team catchup calls with a riveting game of online Wordle, hangman, or Pictionary
Organize a weekly/monthly virtual coffee catchup. We had this at Budsies every Thursday after lunch (when productivity slumps, and we could all use a coffee!). I recommend nominating someone with high social capital that's low on the organizational org chart to run these. It can feel stuffy and coerced if the upper management runs them.
Introduce random one-on-one donut meetings to build bridges between colleagues in different teams. (there's a handy Slack app for this)
UpKeep has a daily “Life at UpKeep prompt”. They ask a different question every day - like “tell us about what you ate for breakfast”, “where your favorite place to vacation to”, or “what you did this weekend.” They have done more than 650 prompts to date and these have become a daily ritual to drive closer bonds between colleagues.
Quirky Example: Build your own office chair
We were a pretty scrappy bunch at Budsies. When we moved offices, Ikea delivered all our new furniture in a giant heap of boxes. My friend (and SEO guru) Tom Dehnel and I spent the weekend building everything from desks to bookcases so the employees could come to a usable office on Monday morning. We ran out of time putting together the office chairs. So, when the team arrived, everyone was tasked with putting together their own chair. Some members of our group were more skilled than others, but everyone chipped in and helped each other. This chair building became our ritual.
From then on, as we hired new employees, we would set up their desks, laptops, and welcome packets. But, we would not give them a chair. On their first day, they'd be directed to the pile of Ikea boxes in our warehouse to select the chair color of their choice, drag it into the main office area, and get to work assembling it. This ritual became an interactive spectacle. Some team members would reminisce stories of their own chair-building, while others would step in and offer advice on which parts to attach and in which order. The ritual applied to everyone regardless of rank, which spoke to our core value of Team: "we are always willing to help each other and aren't above anyone or anything."
Standard Example: Turning an anniversary into a ritual-filled holiday
Now that we know what to look for, we can build rituals in companies that will likely build strong communal bonds among employees. I'll demonstrate how we can apply these concepts to an anniversary celebration.
At Budsies, our employees surprised me one day by throwing a 6-year Budsieversary party. Someone on the team had checked state records to see when I had incorporated the company. They themed the event around our mascot ("Dongler"!), including cake and balloons. It was heartwarming to see how much our team cared about our company's journey.
To this day, I regret not jumping on this and turning it into a broader annual celebration. Given what I now know about fostering culture, here's how I recommend you mark your company's anniversary:
Clear timing: You can decide which date to use: the incorporation date of the entity, the public launch of your first product, the first customer, or whatever else you can tell a good founding story around. Regardless of what you choose, make sure it is a precise date and communicate this date clearly throughout the team. Add it into your onboarding materials, add it to the shared company calendar, and speak about it in the weekly/monthly announcements leading up to the holiday.
Actions (in unison): You might want to write out a paragraph or two that describes a critical early struggle and successful outcome of the company and have everyone read that out loud together. Alternatively, you might want everyone to read the company's core values aloud. Some teams have funny handshakes. Others, like the team at Airbo, do a hokey cheer together. It sounds silly, but consider how often congregants recite prayers or readings together in a religious service. This stuff works. Trust me.
Gathering: You will want to bring everyone together physically or virtually. Carve out an hour at the end of the day where people can celebrate together. The CEO/Founder should address everyone. Order some simple catering (or themed cupcakes!) so people can eat together and mingle
Spirituality: An anniversary can be a great time to honor the company's history. The Founder/CEO should use the time to reiterate some key anecdotes from the company's founding history. I encourage you to cite the virtuous actions of key early employees who embodied the values you want to promote in your company.
The anniversary event is an excellent time to celebrate the contributions of key employees over the past year. While sales and engineering meetings are suitable venues to celebrate overachievers, anniversaries are perfect for commemorating employees who embody the softer company values. Winners should be honored with a symbolic token. The token itself is irrelevant - it could simply be a mug and a gift card. The key is that the token is something unique to that award and something the recipient can display either at their workplace or their home.
Iconography: I recommend distributing t-shirts to all company employees during these anniversaries, with unique colors or insignia for each year. Employees who have been with the company for longer can proudly don their vintage colors throughout the year. We saw this play out at Budsies by chance - our branding evolved, so some of our original employees would rock coveted t-shirt designs that newer employees could not.
Applying it all to your organization
The best rituals are a combination of intentional architecting and organic happenstance. The key is having a grasp of the critical elements of successful rituals. Sprinkling a little ageless wisdom from today's most successful religions can help turn boring meetings into rituals the team eagerly anticipates and celebrates.
Next up: Iconography.
We’ll dive into why symbolism works in religion and how you can integrate iconography into your own company.
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