The Case for Rituals in the Workplace

1 Wired

U.S. public places and office spaces are becoming more secular each year as adherents to the Establishment Clause seek to reduce the exposure of one belief over another. There are many arguments for not having a state religion and this premise was a founding principle that ensured U.S. citizens were free from the religious persecution that drove early settlers to these shores. While not having a formal state religion (arguable) benefits the plurality, the push for sanitizing most traces of religion from our public spaces is depriving us of an essential activity: rituals. 

We are a ritualistic species. This is an evolutionary advantage that led H. Sapiens to triumph over Neanderthals. Cultures all over the world are bound together by a rich tapestry of rituals that contribute to social cohesion. They often center on stress reduction, community building, and status recognition and involve synchronized, attention-getting, and stylized behavior taking place in ceremonial or symbolic settings. 

We’re wired for ritual, an instinct that emerges and is solidified by every major religion. Every major religion is full of rituals, each with their holy day requiring specific actions that typically involve gathering together for group activity in symbolic devotion to a belief, god, or historical event. 

Rituals take place on a schedule, based on the calendar (like a month of fiscal quarter), celestial events (cycle of the moon or procession of the equinoxes), events (achieving 100%, marriage, or childbirth), or aging (job tenure or initiatory rites). The regular schedule creates familiarity and expectation that something will happen at a predetermined time. When the ritual occurs we feel comfort and relaxation, all is as it should be (even if the ritual is painful). 

As we come together for this ritual we create space that is held together by collective intention. When gathered together for a collective purpose we learn to trust those observing the ritual with us. This creates common reference points and builds deeper social bonds. 

As the ritual continues a rhythm develops. This routine leads to depth. Inside the safe space woven by trust  held together by community, we drop deeper into the ritual, daring to be exposed, seen, and felt, and by doing so become more raw and honest with ourselves and others. This depth ushers more power for the individual and collective. The ritual ends by us recognizing status, accepting a shared truth, empathizing with our fellows, feeling compassion for our humanity, and celebrating.

Ritual space is sacred. The word comes from the Old French sacrer meaning “consecrate, anoint, dedicate”. We are dedicating a space for a purpose, setting an intention for how this time and place will be shared. We have lost much of the sacred in our secularization. Public space is secular, not sacred, and as such we grow more disconnected from our shared rituals. 

2 Work Needs Ritual

We need more rituals in the workplace. Whether we’re digital, remote, or in-office, ritual helps create the space for genuine connection in a work environment. We bring our best selves. When people expect ritual, they prepare. If the ritual occurs after achievement, it gives us something to shoot for and a shared memorable moment to commemorate our attainment. Ritual helps calibrate our humanity, create commonality, and have fun. 

In the team meetings I’ve led recently, we’ve taken to starting our meetings with the ritual of sharing three gratitudes. When it becomes an expectation, it becomes a way that we set the space. There’s plenty to read about the benefits of being grateful so I won’t bore you with that here. When we come to a meeting expecting it, over time, the gratitudes become more personal and engaging. 

Sales is abound with potential for rituals. Welcome rituals for joining a new team or starting a new position.  Recognition rituals for hitting month, quarter, year, and club. Celebration rituals like banging the gong or happy hours. And then there are company rituals like commemorating an important milestone, connecting to the early days/founding, or devoting time to a certain cause each year. 

Ritual requires reverence, meaning we must make our rituals overt. It is time to recognize our need for ritual, normalize it for the work environment, make its existence explicit, and allow participation as optional, but encouraged. We want people to lean in and bring their hearts, not engage begrudgingly while rolling their eyes. Rather than push for the secularization of our work space, let us anoint it in our shared intention. 

Rituals can also be personal as well. The surgeon scrubbing their hands in a certain way is a ritual that creates the sacred (dedicated, anointed) space called the operating room where great concentration occur. The same can be said for our morning, coffee, exercise, and work preparation rituals. All can help create the sacred space necessary for the performance of some meaningful activity.

Note that a routine is something we do that needs to be done regularly while a ritual is a deeper more meaningful practice engaged with purpose behind it. By this definition, we need less routine and more ritual in our personal and professional lives.

3 Variety is the Spice of Life

It also makes sense for our workplaces to encourage the sharing and observing of other rituals that are important to our diverse employees. Homogeneity creates fragility. Variety creates resilience. Let’s welcome the full spectrum of rituals to be acknowledged in the office, though not necessarily practiced. This allows us to bring our whole selves to work and to (hopefully) be seen and appreciated for who we are. Sure, it could lead to some conversations with HR, and this will be healthy in our pursuit of inclusive work environments. 

We must do more than merely tolerate those who have different beliefs if our communities, businesses, and country are to thrive. Toleration is often thought of as grudging and short of acceptance. None of us have to accept another’s beliefs. The skill (yes, it’s a learned skill) of being able to maintain one’s own beliefs while seeking to understand (or even engage in) another’s is essential for building mutualism in our pluralistic society.

Our ability to be open to the beliefs that underlie an entirely different worldview is one measure of our compassion and humanity. It is through the exposure to different beliefs and rituals that we come to more deeply know our own. That you are different is to be expected and celebrated, not denigrated and relegated to hiding. Bring your ritual and your beliefs. Know they are welcome here and in the organizations I lead or am involved with. 

4 In the Workplace?

Yes, now more than ever. American culture rotates heavily around the workplace as a primary nexus of socializing and interaction. We “live to work” more than the other way around. As the nature of work continues to evolve it must continue to meet more of our needs, ritual being one of them. It is time to create and acknowledge rituals centered around the organization’s shared mission and our work within it or create the space for personal beliefs and welcome their rituals.

Many of us are unable to sit on each other’s desks. “Death by Zoom” is nearing workers’ compensation levels. We’ve lost the breakroom coffee chat. Many experiences cannot be replaced digitally. It is from the comfort of our homes that we have a great opportunity to welcome ritual into our digital work space to battle digital fatigue and build deeper interpersonal relationships. Ritual can then follow us back to the office (if we ever go back) as one of the big boons from this time.

As I wrap up this piece, I found a great article in the New York Times about Sacred Design Lab. It is full of resources and other practitioners who have already put significant effort into this need of ours. Reading the comments on the NYT article I notice a high level of cynicism from commenters about whether this is really needed. In the constant effort at sense-making, I will explore the case against rituals in the workplace soon, just as I recently did in the cases for and against space settlement.