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The Rise of Rituals in the Realm of Creative Business

July 9, 2020

Practiced by people since time immemorial, rituals are finding fresh resonance in both corporate and creative contexts.

“Rituals” is a decidedly woo-woo word. If it doesn’t make you think of the chain store of the same name selling bath potions and massage oils, most likely images of candles, long robes and incense smoke come to mind. So it may be somewhat astonishing to hear that rituals have been becoming increasingly established in the business world over the past decade thanks to the range of positive effects they have been shown to offer both individuals and businesses.

Write-ups on the results of several studies into the effects of rituals by behavioral scientists Mike Norton and Francesca Gino, also professors at the Harvard Business School, may have been responsible in part for triggering the buzz in recent years. As Norton explains, he and Gino were able to show that, “rituals in the face of loss can help us feel less grief, rituals with families can make us feel closer, and rituals with our partners can reinforce our commitment to each other.”1 The Harvard researchers and another team at the Carlson School of Management at University of Minnesota also discovered that rituals increase people’s perception of value through a series of tests where food was consumed immediately after performance of a ritual. (It should be noted that Norton and Gino do not characterize rituals as “elaborate religious ceremonies”2 – in this case, the “ritual” consisted of simply breaking and unwrapping a chocolate bar in a specific way defined by the scientists.) In summarizing the studies’ findings, one Harvard Business Review contributor concluded, “if employees perform rituals as part of their jobs, they are likely to find their jobs more rewarding. And if consumers use a ritual to experience your product, they are likely to enjoy it more and be willing to pay more for it.”3

It’s not surprising then that the business world has been keen to embrace rituals with a range of articles cropping up on the web suggesting ways in which companies can integrate rituals into the workplace and harvest the benefits of an enhanced company culture and a deepening of people’s sense of shared purpose and experience, ultimately making both the work and the company more successful. However, it must be said that reducing rituals to a quick ‘hack’ for gaining employee allegiance and engagement overlooks possibilities to activate a much more profound sense of connection that has the potential to be not just organization-enhancing but world-changing.

Most companies already practice rituals of some kind – celebration rituals, eating rituals, storytelling rituals – without having put any particular thought into their deeper purpose or value. Importantly, there is a subtle difference between a routine activity – such as employees getting together to eat at lunchtime – and a ritual event – for example, a team lunch held in a specific location that follows a set agenda and includes some original elements devised by the group, like a game or a song. The main differentiator of rituals from routine – according to Casper ter Kuile of the Sacred Design Lab, a Brooklyn-based research and design consultancy that investigates and promotes the practicing of rituals – is that rituals require “intention”, “attention” and “repetition”. And an interesting way of understanding the differences in their psychological benefits is offered by Brainpickings blogger, Maria Popova: “The structure of routine comforts us, and the specialness of ritual vitalizes us.”4

Ter Kuile maintains that there are three critical experiences all humans yearn for that can be accessed through ritual: feelings “of belonging, becoming and the beyond”. Could the latter two aspects be of particular relevance to creative minds? It appears that this has yet to be thoroughly explored (thesis topic, anyone?), however, on a related note, cognitive neuroscience has recently found evidence of a positive correlation between ritual and creativity in that, “ritual promotes thought suppression – tuning out the inner critic, dampening brain chatter, centering and focusing the mind and decreasing anxiety before executing complex tasks.”5

For critical minds, the experiences of “becoming and the beyond” that rituals offer are what push rituals out of the comfort zone of rationally justifiable team building into the dreaded realm of woo-woo, but it is precisely in tapping into the universal human desire for such experiences, that the real, lasting power of rituals is awakened. As Mama Donna Henes asserts in her 2013 Huffington Post piece, the need for ritual represents, “a compelling urge to merge with the infinite; [it] reminds us of a larger, archetypal reality and invokes in us a visceral understanding of such universal paradigms as unity, continuity, connectivity, reverence and awe.”6 The signs that people today are searching for deeper meaning and real connection in their lives are all around us – from yoga classes and meditation apps to business gurus and psychotherapists.

In the midst of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the topic of rituals once again returned to the Harvard Business Review. With an article titled “The Restorative Power of Ritual”, senior editor Scott Berinato hailed them as, “a powerful human mechanism for managing extreme emotions and stress,” and urges, “we should be leaning on them now.”7 In the same piece, Mike Norton cites an example of a new ritual arising from the fresh terrain of work-from-home meetings that shows how simple, “un-woo-woo” and also humorous a ritual can be: “One company has started all its virtual meetings by having participants click on images of Patrick from SpongeBob to indicate how they’re feeling…it is giving people a sense of control and familiarity in a new and uncomfortable situation.”8

Here at the Berlin School, we have one notable ritual that has been around since the beginning: the signing of the dedicated classroom wall on graduation day. Over the past 14 years, the wall has become a colorful tapestry, an electric tangle celebrating a shared journey and the realization of a dream. The wall ritual also symbolically suggests the weaving of each graduate’s identity into the collective spirit of the school, implying that they will carry its values and lessons with them far into their future professional lives – and that they have left behind an enduring – a literally indelible – impression.