Habits vs Rituals

Enjoy The Work blog post. Habits vs Rituals.

Does your company have habits or rituals?

Habit: a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.

Ritual: a solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.

Biting your nails is a habit. Chewing food with your mouth open is a habit. Cracking your knuckles is a habit. College graduation is a ritual, and so is a wedding ceremony or a child’s birthday party.

I know we’ve all, at some point, tried to instill “good habits.” I would argue that such is simply a euphemism for rituals. Most habits start as mindless ticks. We do them often enough, and they calcify. When we periodically try and liberate ourselves from them, it feels difficult if not impossible. The important distinction I see is that habits typically are mindless routines designed to cope with some unspoken emotional need. I’m nervous, so I whistle. I’m lonely, so I check my phone. Rituals, conversely, are a person’s conscious choice to instill a behavior believed to be life-enriching. Think of morning meditation, making one’s bed, or Friday night dinner with your family.

It’s not just in our personal lives. Companies have habits and rituals as well.

It’s not just in our personal lives. Companies have habits and rituals as well.

— People are late to meetings.

— Meeting attendees check email during discussions.

— Team members don’t spell/grammar check written communications.

— People ignore emails or messages from certain departments. (e.g., HR)

— Employees submit expense reports late. (or not at all)

Now what about some rituals…

— You celebrate new sales.

— Acknowledge employee anniversaries.

— Gather for an employee’s birthday.

— Hold all hands to discuss the company’s performance.

— Host goodbye drinks for a departing co-worker.

Notice a pattern? I’m cherry-picking, of course, but habits tend to be negative. None of them represent intentional decisions for the greater good. They all are selfish. And that often is the clear indicator of whether something is a habit versus a ritual. Habits almost always put the person above the team. They are the sinister byproduct when one mindlessly disengages from what the community needs.

The team might need me to be on time, be present for meetings, communicate professionally, respond thoughtfully, or just turn in my TPS reports, but I’m not empathetic enough to care. Instead, I lollygag to the meeting in which I barely engage while sending out garbled emails to everyone except the departments I choose to ignore, all the while sitting on six months of late expense reports.

Rituals, on the other hand are not the accidental byproduct of poor empathy. They are thoughtful creations. When done in the furtherance of a company’s core values, mission, and vision, rituals can be powerful catalysts.

Here are a handful I’ve experienced in my career:

  • We celebrated new business with the ringing of a Tibetan gong.
  • Whenever we deploy a new product, the employee most involved is given the opportunity to deliver a demo to the entire company.
  • We would publicly test our new hires’ memorization of our core values.
  • We commemorated anniversaries with company-branded gifts of ascending value.

If you find yourself looking across your business and the habits outnumber the rituals, you’re not alone. But it’s not too late. Your team can learn new things. You already regularly learn how to build better products, close prospects more quickly, and delight existing customers more regularly. Instilling rituals is just another tool to master. So gather your leaders, brainstorm rituals that feel consistent with your culture, and then (most importantly) commit.

Every company has rituals and habits. It’s natural. But more of the former and less of the latter likely will better serve your interests. So pick up the mallet and hit your gong and by all means, stop biting your nails.

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