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Bonding Rituals For Better Teamwork

teamwork rituals

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About a year ago, my wife and I started a tradition called Movie Monday. It’s exactly what it sounds like. We watch a movie every Monday with friends and fam.

But there’s more to our little tradition than just that. Every week we try to pick the movie based on something that’s relevant to whatever’s going on in the world:

  • Is it the start of winter? Ok, let’s watch some sort of cold-related movie.

  • Is it’s someone’s mom’s birthday? What’s her favorite movie?

  • Movie Monday falls on May 4th this year? Easy. Star Wars.

  • Memorial Day? Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind!

Here's what's interesting about Movie Monday, though. When the world shut down over the Covid-19 pandemic, we could no longer have people over for it. So we started watching Movie Monday films in our own homes at the same time. Which may sound ridiculous. We don't even see each other anymore. But at this point our group ritual is so natural—and I’d dare say important to us—that we've transitioned to remote movie watching without a hitch.

So now, every Monday at 8pm we get in a chat thread, make sure everybody has the movie queued up, and count down: 3, 2, 1, PLAY! And then we each watch the movie at our own houses.

Watching a movie at the same time as someone who’s somewhere else in the world might sound pointless. But we love it.

That’s because Movie Monday is not just about watching a movie. It’s a ritual. Movie Monday is our thing. And the fact that it’s our thing makes it more satisfying, and more fun, than just the thing itself.

Formative Experiences: How Humans Build Bonds

This may sound obvious, but here’s the truth: Doing activities together bonds us together. That’s the essence of what a group ritual is.

The definition of a group ritual is simply this: An act that people regularly repeat together the same way.

It doesn’t need to be ceremonial or official at all—though it can be.

The basic rule, in other words, is that a ritual has to be done consistently. Beyond that, rituals can vary a great deal depending on what you’re trying to accomplish with them.

But some activities are more likely to cause a group to bond than others.

If you go fight in a war together, you’re going to develop a stronger bond with someone than if you work at a pizza place together.

The amount of bonding that two or more people develop when sharing an experience depends on two variables: Stress and Meaning.

An activity that is low stress and low meaning, such as going to dinner and talking about the weather, will result in less bonding than an activity that is low stress and higher meaning, like going to dinner and sharing deep, personal stories about your lives.

And those will create weaker bonds than something that has high meaning and high stress, like going through boot camp together.

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In a business setting, it can often be hard to find meaning in the day to day activities we do together as a team. Ideally, we’re working toward a powerful, meaningful shared purpose that we’re able to keep top of mind. But sometimes we’re just negotiating budgets, or figuring out how to keep the servers up.

Yet, for teams where much of the group activity isn’t inherently full of meaning, it is possible to create meaning for the team itself—to remind ourselves that we’re part of something bigger together, and that that matters.

And that’s where group rituals are powerful.

A ritual doesn't have to have specific meaning itself—say, like Movie Monday—in order for it to create meaning for the group that does it together. That’s because rituals themselves help create a shared sense of identity and trust. And that is inherently meaningful.

So when I’m asked by leaders about what they can do to improve their team’s “alignment,” one of the first things I’ll usually recommend is to create some rituals.

The Power Of Group Rituals For Creating Alignment & Meaning

Psychologists have long studied what rituals do to our brains—and the effect is powerful.

For individuals, having personal rituals helps reduce anxiety or get you in the headspace for doing something. Baseball players who tap their foot three times before stepping up to the plate might think they’re being superstitious. But what they’re actually doing is preparing their brains to focus and perform. The consistent action of the personal batting ritual helps a player to slip into the same mental zone every time.

This works whatever the motion is, so long as the ritual is consistent.

For groups, the brain science of rituals is even more fascinating.

For one, the same anxiety-reduction factor we get from personal rituals also occurs in groups. When a group does some same thing over and over, the repetition of the event helps to quell negative emotions and replace them with calm—even if the thing the group doing is weird or scary. Rituals are powerful in part because they distract us from negative emotions. (This explains how people in cults can feel comfortable doing even bizarre or disturbing rituals.)

But more importantly, rituals can help team members do what great teams need them to do: trust each other and put the group's interests above their own.

Group rituals help us to feel safer around each other. And that leads to smoother teamwork. Studies show, for example, that groups of people who’ve never met before who do a group ritual before tackling a challenge tend to perform better—and more importantly they like each other more afterward. (I suspect these strangers perform better in part because they communicate less cautiously…)

Now that we've covered the science, it's time for the hard part.

If we want to get the benefits of group rituals—without the pushback that comes with trying to inject cheesy shit we learned from a blog post with a stock photo of multi-racial models putting their hands in a circle—it pays to understand a few nuances about the different types of rituals, how they go wrong, and what’s going to make sense for your particular team.

Oh God it’s that stock photo again

Oh God it’s that stock photo again

There are 3 types of group rituals: Sacrifice, Synchrony, and Coordination

Rituals of sacrifice are things you do consistently that reinforce individual suppression. They're actions you take to show that the group is more important than you.

Examples include the following:

  • Wearing a uniform (sacrificing your individual dress)

  • Shaving your head (sacrificing your individual look)

  • Bowing or kneeling to a leader (sacrificing your stature)

  • Abstaining from things (sacrificing your appetites)

  • Attending ceremonies as a show of devotion (sacrificing your time)

Unless the individual would do these things on their own, for their own sake—e.g. you would wear that maroon prep school sweater every day anyway—behaving or dressing or spending your time in a certain way for a group’s sake is a ritual of sacrifice.

These rituals are quite on the nose. They reinforce the idea that the group is greater than the individual... by squashing the individual. And whereas this is powerful from a psychology standpoint, if an individual is resistant to the ritual of sacrifice that a group asks of them, it can lead to the opposite of a bonding effect: resentment.

The second category is the ritual of synchrony.

These are rituals where the group all does some same thing at the same time. For example, a high five or a fun handshake is a ritual of synchrony. You and your team member “synch” the same motion—and usually you’ll synch the same emotion while you’re at it. (A high five requires a certain level of enthusiasm to be truly synchronous.)

Examples include the following:

  • Chants, cheers, marching, and other repeat group activities

  • Slapping the sign in the tunnel on your way out before a ball game

  • Observing holidays together

  • Watching movies together (so long as it’s done repeatedly and in the same way)

  • And any ritual of sacrifice that is done in unison is a ritual of synchrony, too. (E.g. if you all wear the uniform, shave your head, etc., at the same time, it's both a ritual of sacrifice and synchrony.)

Research shows that synchrony rituals cause people to tend to feel closer to each other. And they also make it easier to do things that might be difficult or painful. The fact that Movie Monday is our ritual makes it easier for any individual to agree to watching a movie that they’d rather not—or to do unrelated things, like help one of the people in the Movie Monday group move apartments.

Finally, there are rituals of coordination.

These are repeat activities where you’re not mirroring the same actions as everyone in the group, but you are doing something together that has a consistency and regularity to it.

Examples include the following:

  • Games, sports, and other activities that you play regularly

  • Cooking together, or otherwise creating something together

  • Working on something together the same way, at a consistent time. (E.g. every day after dinner, I wash the dishes, while you put them away.)

As with the other two categories, people come out of rituals of coordination feeling closer to one another. But coordination also helps to build confidence between people. And as I explored in Chapter 3 of Dream Teams, psychology research shows that the more a group ritual has a “play-like” feel to it, the more likely members who are wary of each other initially will start to trust each other.

To some degree, each kind of ritual accomplishes the same thing: bonding a group. But the three types of rituals each serve a slightly different primary purpose:

  • Rituals of sacrifice reinforce the importance of putting group over self

  • Rituals of synchrony make people feel like part of something together

  • Rituals of coordination help people have more confidence in each other

How To Design A Group Ritual That Works For YOUR Team

Though research shows that group rituals reliably help bring people closer, there is one important caveat: rituals can also make groups more cliquish toward outsiders. Studies show that when sub-teams within a company create strong rituals, they start to see themselves as part of a different team than the other sub-teams within their company.

If you think about it, this is essentially what has happened with humanity in general. We’re all the same species—all part of the same big team. But in our different tribes we have developed different cultures with different rituals. And over the millennia we have split into many, many different factions who see other groups as not part of our team. (Humanity's divisions are more complicated than this, but "the way we do things" plays a big part.)

Because of this, it’s important to create group rituals that include everyone in the “superordinate group” we're trying to bond. Sure, your engineering team can have its own rituals… as long as the whole company has good rituals, too. Otherwise the engineers may slowly start to see the salespeople as part of a different team.

On this note—and because of all my research on the benefits of cognitive diversity—my recommendation in general is for teams to avoid rituals that have the potential to step on the individuality of any member, too.

A weekly happy hour at Tom & Jerry’s every Thursday after work is a great ritual… except for that team member who has kids that need to be picked up from school. Ideally, you’d want a ritual that doesn’t make that person have to choose between being a good parent and being a good team member.

That’s why for the most part I recommend being wary of rituals of sacrifice unless the thing being sacrificed is really low stakes. And even then, if you can frame the activity as a ritual of synchrony instead, that will take pressure off. For example, instead of having a rigid dress code (ritual of sacrifice), let people dress however they want to express themselves… but Friday is the day everyone wears the company color, orange. Sacrificing what you wear once a week, in the service of synchrony, will be more likely to be a bonding experience than a potential source of griping.

Research indicates that the quirkier a ritual—or really, the more unique it is to just your group and no other group—the more likely it will have a powerful bonding effect on the group.

So here’s my basic formula for an effective team ritual:

A great team ritual = something our group does that’s our thing, which we do repeatedly, and consistently, and which doesn’t step on people’s individuality.

After that—and before answering the question of “what should we do for our ritual”—comes the question of “when?” What’s the right time to inject a ritual in your team’s life? And how can you do that without making things weird?

when And How To “launch” a ritual with your team

Even though rituals of synchrony and coordination themselves are low stakes, actually starting one can make you a little vulnerable. Proposing a group start a ritual can be putting yourself out on a limb.

To avoid that, I have some advice:

  1. Instead of holding some sort of formal meeting to launch a ritual, try slipping it into the team’s day-to-day events organically. Do it as a one-time thing first, gauge the reaction, then repeat.

  2. Once you get it rolling, consider calling it a “tradition” instead of a ritual, if you think any of your team members may resist the latter.

  3. Insert the ritual at a key moment when a group is already transitioning from one activity to another:

    • At the start of things you’re already planning on doing (e.g. at the start of every certain kind of meeting or activity)

    • At the end of things you’re already doing

    • At the start and end of weeks and days

    • When it’s a holiday or occasion of some sort

    • Or, insert the ritual when you can reliably have a reminder or trigger. This makes rituals not feel as forced.

The more naturally a ritual can start to fit into a group’s activities, the easier it will be for people to get on board with it, enjoy it, and experience the benefits.

For example, one of my favorite rituals at my old company, Contently, grew organically out of something I did on a whim:

Every quarter, we would hold a company all-hands meeting called The State of Contently, where all the team leaders would brief the company on the state of things.

This itself was a ritual. But one day I decided I wanted to celebrate some people who’d been particularly great examples of our company’s only value: “Be awesome to each other.” So I bought some random items from the thrift store as makeshift “trophies.” At the end of the meeting, I made an awards speech about the company value and the three people who I was surprising with the trophies. I made them come up to the front and take a photo with their prize, and everyone cheered.

This impromptu awards show was a hit. So I did it at the next quarterly all-hands. By the third time we did it, I was calling it “The Awessies,” and it had become a ritual people looked forward to. Every step of it was exactly the same, from the speech to the selection of random silly trophies.

The Awessies became an example of both synchrony and coordination rituals. One week before each all-hands, I began asking people to nominate, someone who they’d spotted being awesome to someone else. Everyone started participating in this tradition (coordination!), and then at each Awessies ceremony everyone was synchronized in the same series of events: hearing the speech, cheering for the winners, and so on.

You don’t have to give speeches and buy prizes to create a great team ritual. A group ritual can be as simple as cheering every evening when the health care workers get off their shifts—or watching a movie every Monday!—or as elaborate as a quarterly award show. As long as you do it regularly make it your thing, that’s all that matters.

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Post Script: A few Examples of Team Rituals That I’ve Seen Work

Some of the most reliable elements of team rituals include food, stories, speeches, and celebrations—but the important thing is to do something uniquely your own, even if you are remixing these kinds of tried-and-true elements.

If you’re in a leadership position and are looking to spark ideas for a ritual for your team, the following are all things I’ve seen work:

  • Start each week with a group chat thread where you ask people to weigh in on a question that’s on your mind.

  • Every time a customer sends a nice comment in, send an email to the team celebrating it. Or even better, once a month put the best customer comment on a cake, and eat it together!

  • Kick off every offsite with a Bruce Lee quote, or a pump-up song, or a childhood story (I’ve seen lots of variations of this; the point is it has to become recognized as a thing you do).

  • Start all large group meetings with a breathing exercise (only works for certain types of teams in certain industries, but I’ve seen it work awesome).

  • Invent a company salute. Or gang sign. Or a special high five.

  • Once a quarter, do a “desk swap” where everyone sits in someone else’s digs for a week and gets to know some new neighbors.

  • Post a different poll on the coffee machine every week, and let people put their name (or tally mark) down as the week progresses.

  • Have a tradition of weekly “random coffee dates” where at the start of the week everybody in the company gets assigned a random person to go have a coffee with on Wednesday, where you’re supposed to chat and get to know each other’s stories. (This works with remote teams as well; bring your own drink and fire up your webcam for a 30-minute get-to-know-you.)

  • Have a regular “Jeffersonian” round table, where you pick a list of non-work questions and host a single conversation about them with a group. (Best done over dinner!)

  • Post a “Daily Dispatch” in the team’s chat thread every day before you go home, updating everyone on how your day went (not a formal report—more of a “here’s how things went today”).

  • Have a 5-minute Monday morning stand-up meeting where you rally the team for the week, and always include something you’re particularly grateful for, and a shout-out to one person for doing something that’s gone unrecognized.

  • Every Wednesday, take your immediate team to lunch somewhere, and after you order your meals, go around the table and have everyone say one thing they’re currently excited about and one thing they’re worried about (great for building trust and vulnerability in addition to bonding).

  • Every Friday—or once a month—host a 10-minute “lightning talk” with a guest speaker from inside or outside the company, followed by an AMA.

  • Throw a weekly breakfast for the team, or happy hour (during the last hour of work, so anybody who needs to get home on time still can) that you kick off every time with a similar routine.

  • Get a statue or trophy that you award to one person each month for something unexpected. Have them sign their name on it and keep it at their desk, then take it back and award it to someone else the next month.

  • Host a monthly or quarterly book club (make sure the way the books are selected and what you do at book club has ritual elements, so it’s unique and you do the same thing every time).

  • Have an annual story night where you retell the history of the team or the company every year (and let people tell their favorite stories, too).

  • Always order the same some sort of unique dessert in honor of people’s birthdays (the quirkier the better, for ritual value).

  • Celebrate nontraditional holidays. Even better: invent your own holidays!

As you can tell, the possibilities are endless. Hopefully this list—and the principles above—can inspire some little rituals that are truly your own!