How to use rituals and celebrations to build a great culture

Buying the tree. Wrapping the presents. Singing carols. Cooking a turkey. It’s pretty obvious what I’m talking about. Sorry if you’re already feeling sick of Christmas, but it’s a great example of the rituals and celebrations that bring meaning to our lives and rhythm to our year.

People have long gained comfort from shared customs and a sense of tradition. This sense of belonging to something bigger — a common identity — is really important to personal happiness. It’s something that can be harnessed in business as well as in every-day life. Every company has a culture, good or bad, and it’s the nature of its shared rituals and celebrations that often determine its culture.

Learn from the All Blacks

When I’m working with clients, we look at ways of embedding these rituals to give structure and purpose to their organisations. I often give examples to illustrate what I’m saying.

A great one is the rituals that help the All Blacks rugby team to be successful. In his book, ‘Legacy — What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life’, James Kerr describes how they’ve ‘codified’ these rituals into the way the players relate to each other. By its nature, the All Blacks team is transient. So it’s a constant challenge to bring new people up to the same level of knowledge, awareness and emotional engagement as those who’ve been in the team for a while. What sticks in my mind is their ritual when facing a match against Wales. Whenever they cross the Welsh border in the team bus, they jump on their seats and chant in unison, ‘We never lose in Wales’. How brilliant is that? What a way to create a positive mental state and mindset. And they’ve won 30 out of 33 matches as a result!

Create a rhythm for your business

I grew up a Catholic and went to all all-boys, catholic school. Every Wednesday afternoon, we had Benediction which meant we got out of school early. Whilst in Benediction everyone knelt at same time, said the same thing, sang the same hymns. It gave me a sense of being part of something bigger, of longevity, continuity, consistency and timelessness.

It’s important to ensure your business fosters this sense of belonging and inter-connectedness. If you’re deliberate about it and control it, you can create a rhythm and a heart-beat. A sense of managing the energy of your business in a positive and productive way.

This was something we did when I took over as MD of IT Lab. Lehman Brothers had just gone bust. Turnover went from £8m to £5m overnight. Our customer base of small London businesses was terrified and instantly stopped their discretionary spend. No-one was buying printers, pcs or servers, let alone having them installed. My company was losing £65K per month and we had three months to save the business.

My theme for these three months was pretty clear — survival. Once we’d all agreed this, we said to each other, ‘What are you working on for the next 8 hours? Does it link to our theme for the quarter?’ If it didn’t, we told ourselves not to do it. This was instrumental in turning around our fortunes.

Time and again, I’ve seen how a 90-day rhythm can build alignment in a business. Staff feel most engaged when they know what’s expected of them. If it’s made super clear to them, they’ll know that what they’ve done has made a difference and been meaningful. It’s far easier to see the link between what you do today and a quarterly theme as you can see and make sense of a nearer horizon.

Add structure and ritual

That are the other rituals you can introduce? Quarterly kick offs when your 90-day theme is clearly communicated and linked to the longer-term vision. Every member of staff should be given three or four objectives and key results linked to the 90-day theme. They can discuss these in a ‘daily huddle’, talking through what they did yesterday, what they did today, what are the ‘blockers’ or alerts for the team to look out for etc.

I’ve found staff often push back on the daily huddle. They say they don’t have time or it doesn’t add any value. I say, if it doesn’t add value, you’re not doing it right! It shouldn’t last more than 15 minutes, you should huddle standing up and you should start with some good news. All your staff need to realise that if they take 15 minutes out of their day, every day, they will get back so much more time from the clarity of overcoming hurdles and agreeing priorities. They will feel much more connected to the business and the people in it. Communication is done face-to-face, in person and daily and not via email.

Weekly one-to-ones with managers give staff the opportunity to look at whether they’ve made progress during the last week. At IT Lab, we also had a monthly check-in which was related back again to the 90-day theme.

Celebrate! Be positive!

Most importantly, at the end of every 90-day cycle, make sure you celebrate. This will give all your employees a sense of positive achievement and the feeling that what they’ve done has made a difference.

At IT Lab, we had an ‘all-hands’ meeting every month where we were totally transparent. We shared financial information and asked each of the managers to say three positive things. They were briefed to catch people doing the right thing and call this out, giving awards wherever possible.

This was combined with a weekly email from the CEO, again putting a positive spin on what had happened that week and what was being planned for the following week. By using a ‘carrot not stick’ approach, we modelled the sort of behaviour we wanted to see in the organisation and taught staff to understand what was expected of them.

When I was MD at Peer 1, we introduced a system where public ‘thank you’s’ became the norm, accompanied by a round of applause. It became a regular thing and was hugely powerful for staff motivation.

Ditch the negative rituals

In large corporates, one of the most common rituals is annual appraisal. They can be painful processes for both manager and employee. Basically, at your appraisal you’re told, ‘Here’s why everyone else hates you. Here are the personality traits you need to fix. These are the reasons we can’t give you a payrise etc.’ Increasingly, there’s a growing realisation that these annual appraisals are destructive, causing more issues with employee motivation than they solve. I say, if your company has weekly one on ones with managers, you don’t need annual appraisals. Get rid of all this corporate b****cks! Staff are likely to get upset, disengaged and feel the system is unfair. Particularly when annual appraisals are linked to their pay.

Time and again, I come across smaller companies who tell me they’ve just introduced an annual appraisal system because their HR person used to work in a big corporate. I ask them why on earth are you doing that? It’s pointless!

A lack of rituals in businesses can be equally negative. How often do staff turn up on their first day in an organisation to find that no-one has configured their pc, their phone doesn’t work, there’s no laptop ready for them to use. Wipro BPO, the global leader in outsourcing, did some fascinating research showing that the first hour of a new employee’s experience is vital to their future productivity, longevity and revenue generation. If you don’t get this right, the consequences can be bad.

New staff members should be made to feel welcome. Everyone needs to make a fuss of them. RocketMill Digital Marketing does this brilliantly. Have a look at this video. Every new employee gets a standing ovation on their way to their desk. It costs nothing but is hugely powerful. In the past, I’ve sent new employee welcome cards to people before they start. Men and women have said to me that they cried when they read them. There’s a nervousness about joining a new company that should be acknowledged.

Give some time to creating the right rituals and celebrations in your business and it will pay dividends in the long run. Ultimately, if you want a happier company, you need unified behaviours that celebrate positive moments and create a sense of ‘togetherness’ and belonging. These behaviours need to span all employees, teams and the whole company in a rhythm that becomes second nature to everyone. Once you have this, you truly will have a great working culture.

Written by expert business coach Dom Monkhouse — founder of Foundry Media. Find out more about his work here.