There is no time of the year that crams in more celebrations and traditions than the period we’re in right now. Whether religious or secular, the days from mid December into early January are rich with rituals.
Earth-centered traditions look toward the winter solstice and rebirth of the sun. Christian traditions are centered on the birth of the Son. Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Buddha Day, the World Day for Peace, New Year’s Day, Boxing Day, even the Bill of Rights Day all fall within this mid-winter period.
A few Saturday’s ago, I joined a couple of other guys at a cowboy cafe’s breakfast booth. We were eating the usual breakfast specials, chewing the fat, breaking the bread as they say, when talk turned to different traditions in companies we knew. Holiday parties, stature symbols, policies and practices that struck us as interesting, odd, useless or even dysfunctional. That topic soon drifted to the subject of ritual in general. We began wondering out loud whether rituals had lessened in importance. Whether they still held the power and transformative ability they once did.
Time was, we recollected, that meals like the one we were sharing were rituals. They were more than just a time to fill our bellies with food and the air with conversation. They were a time of togetherness, when families strengthened and acknowledged the importance of their lives together in their own, traditional ways. Families, sharing meals in this way, created ritual.
For early indigenous people, building and furnishing a home was an exercise in ritual. An act that carried a special power. Often, at the center of those homes was a pole not only kept the roof off the floor but also was an axis that connected the transcendent and everyday world. It was a way to go about the daily details without losing sight of the higher meaning behind those acts. From this center point, their world could thrive and grow in all directions as they made order and pushed back the boundaries of chaos.
I read about those people and couldn’t wait to get back to my office, pull out my tape measure and figure out what rich symbolism I would find in whatever thing I had placed at the precise center of my office. What I found there is best saved for another conversation. Although I will say that it got me scratching my head and wondering what in the world I was thinking.
The important point here is that most of the things in my office have found their way to the spot they occupy purely by convenience and function. In that process, the meaning of my office and the things in it has suffered by the absence of ritual and intentional placement.
Baseball players talk about things like eating only chicken before a big game. During the playoff season, some guys wear the same shirt or go without shaving for as long as their teams continue to win.
It’s tempting to think about these kinds of gestures as rituals. They’re not. They’re superstitions. All rituals, including meetings, holiday parties and the spot you take in the parking lot, become superstitions when we stop doing them with awareness and intent. When they cease to work inside us, like yeast in bread, long after the action has been performed. When we simply go through the motions, forgetting the purpose and value that once were inseparable from the ritual.
There is a story about a company that was founded early in the nineteenth century. The founder held weekly meetings with his staff. He also had a cat that hung out in his office and followed him everywhere, including to those meetings. Now, the cat had a rowdy streak and was a constant distraction. So, the story goes, the founder, wanting to run an efficient meeting, started tying up the cat to a chair leg before each gathering. Afterward, he untied the cat and let it resume its roaming.
This went on for years. When the founder retired, a new leader continued the weekly meetings and tying the cat. Over time, employees moved on and new ones were hired. Still, the practice of tying the now elderly cat continued.
When the cat finally died, some in the group were relieved, others troubled. Eventually, after many discussions, the acting CEO bought a new cat which he brought to the meetings and tied to a chair. Today, the company still thrives and a cat is still tied to a conference room chair, although no one remembers why. I have no doubt that, somewhere along the line, committees have been formed and reports have been written heralding the impact of a tied cat on market dominance, customer retention and a positive bottom line.
Every business has rituals. These rituals, sometimes called policies and procedures, are there and active whether the people who work there are aware of them or not. The rituals are there whether they’ve outlived their purposes or remain useful. Whether they’re done because they still have value or because “we’ve always done things that way.”
We enliven or kill the rituals every day by our intention and attention. That’s true whether the ritual involves catering in lunch on Fridays, weekly project reviews, holiday parties and who does and doesn’t offer input at meetings. The significance of any tradition is held in our ability to receive what the ritual was intended to deliver. That’s what makes breakfast a special event to one person and merely a blue plate special to another.
Rituals have their greatest power when we engage and reaffirm them. That’s why I’m suggesting that clients make the effort to create special rituals at this time of year. I’d suggest you try these in your organization, too.
- Spend time reviewing the year with your people—all of them. Take time to tell the stories, good and bad. Revisit the crisis that you overcame together. The ones that caused stress at the time and made you stretch in ways you didn’t think you could. Do this by department and in larger groups. Encourage cross-pollination by mixing staff from different departments to get varied perspectives on common events.
- Take most of this time to identify the high points. The events and happenings that brought success to your life and organization— collectively and individually. The ones you want and need to replicate during the new year. Talk about ways to do more of the things that brought success, joy and growth both personally and professionally. Concentrate on the positive, even the little, things and how to do more of them. Know that most, if not all, major problems aren’t solved, they are outgrown.
- Invite departments to meet during work time but away from the office to talk about their best departmental experiences. Ask them to tell the story of those experiences, what it was like to be part of a finely functioning team. After all have given input, identify commonalities in the experiences and brainstorm ways to make those commonalities a more consistent part of every activity.
- Talk about things people are involved with away from work. Discover new things, new talents, interests, passions and explore how those might contribute to activities— existing or new— on the job. Don’t be afraid to break through job descriptions or roles.
- There are many definitions of leadership. One is contributing authentically in a way that adds value to the organization. Talk about how co-workers in every position have shown this kind of leadership. My hope is that you’ll try these ideas, benefit from them and begin a new and positive tradition in your organization. Until next time, happy holidays and may your own traditions, whatever they are, be prosperous and fruitful for yourself, your employees, clients and all the people you serve doing your good and important work.
By James M. Grossman