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How’s that ritual working for you?

Published: Tuesday, July 30, 2013 10:58 a.m. CDT

Rituals are the key to success. I don’t have to tell you that, because your personal ritual of reading this column regularly has taught you how to make your boss think you love your job when you’re desperate to get out.

You’ve also learned how to convince co-workers that you’re a hard worker, when you actually spend most days doing absolutely nothing. Clearly, reading this column is a ritual that has paid off.

Sue Shellenbarger would not be surprised. She is the Work and Family columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and in the recently published “The Power of a ‘Project Beard’ and Other Office Rituals,” she reminds us that “rituals are common among gamblers and sports figures, from wearing a lucky shirt to blow on dice to counting dribbles before a free flow.”

According to Shellenbarger, researchers are now finding that rituals help on the job, too. “People who engage in ritualistic behavior before a difficult task are less anxious, get more involved and tend to perform better than people who didn’t have a ritual.”

Does this mean that you should assemble a coven and start brewing a kettle of gnat’s eyes and bat wings before meeting with your manager? (If you do, think twice. It won’t be easy to expense a half-pound of gnat’s eyes.) But counting your dribbles as you talk with the HR director? That could work.

Much of the ritual research was done at Harvard Business School and the Carlson School of Management.

This is very comforting news. In the face of a damaged economy, two of our leading academic institutions are spending time and money researching the power of your lucky boxers.

Or maybe it’s not so crazy. “Nearly half of 400 people surveyed online recently by Harvard researchers said they engage in ritualistic behavior before performing a task that makes them anxious.”

My favorite among the rituals reported is the employee who admitted that before stepping into a meeting, he removes any “negative energies” by “pounding his feet on the ground several times and shaking his body.” You can certainly understand shaking before a staff meeting, especially the kind that starts with donuts and end up with mass terminations.

But I do think it would be more effective if the ritual pounding of feet actually occurs during the meeting. And how much more powerful it would be if everyone in the meeting started pounding and shaking together. Add a little light disco to the mix, and this ritual would turn any boring meeting into Dance Party, USA.

In some businesses, rituals are part of the company culture. At Salo LLC, a financial and human resources staffing company in Minneapolis, a salesperson who makes a sale “rings a big brass gong on a bank of files in the center of the office.” Other departments “have their own celebration rituals, such as chest bumps or victory dances.”

As you might expect, the world of rituals is not all gong ringing and chest bumping. As people start believing in positive rituals, they are also prone to open their minds to other kinds of magical thinking, like spells and incantations to ward off evil spirits. Even at cheering, clapping and chest-thumping Salo, the dark forces do linger.

“When we are about to lock down a deal,” reports Salo Managing Director Gwen Martin, “it’s bad luck to high-five each other, because you might jinx it. So you do a ‘pinky-five’ instead, tapping pinky fingers.”

And then there is the manufacturing company that “has organized a playful holiday ritual, with one employee dressing in a monkey costume, hiding in a box and jumping out to frighten co-workers.” Regrettably, the power of this ritual was vitiated when an employee with a heart condition “had to be given advance warning and left out of the ritual.”

Wimps!

Of course, there are some spoilsports out in the world who view such rituals as “phony or paternalistic.” And there are others who simply refuse to cooperate, such as all the employees at the Kansas City web-development company Spotted Coi who inexplicably refused to go along with founders Tony Kimberly and Matt Bernier when they grew beards, which they didn’t shave until a project was completed. (The fact that all the uncooperative employees were all female proves, once again, that women have no place in business.)

Personally, I would not recommend that you grow a beard or start pinky-fiving your manager. Stick to the rituals you know are effective. Like reading this column and popping open a brewski every time you’re tempted to start work.

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