Rituals and Organizational Flow

Eric Kish
Eric Kish
Aug 9, 2020 · 3 min read
The haka ritual in the opening of a rugby game in New Zealand

Rituals are arguably a universal feature of human social existence: just as one cannot envision a society without language, one would be hard-pressed to imagine a society without ritual.

First, let us discuss what a ritual is not.

A ritual is not a habit. A habit is an unconscious pattern of behavior.

A ritual is not a routine. A routine provides structure and a logical sequence. It is the framework within which we live our lives and conduct our daily activities.

So what is a ritual? A ritual is a conscious and structured pattern of behaviour, containing symbolism and meaning. Here, I am speaking specifically about organizational rituals. To qualify as an organizational ritual, it must be a group event, be recurrent and done the same way each time. This might sound similar to a routine, but there is a big difference between the two.

A ritual is a conscious and structured pattern of behaviour with symbolic meaning.

Rituals are an integral part of an organization’s culture, as they generally contribute to the organization’s operating procedure. However, it also has a symbolic role, which embodies the values of the organization. Rituals create order and community. They can also be used to both instill new values and change the organization’s culture.

Importantly, rituals strengthen existing values through the active participation of the organization’s members. This reinforces the behaviours we desire, creates focus and a sense of belonging, and ensures any changes are adhered to. Rituals use our brain’s ability to direct our behavior on autopilot, bringing us back in focus when we’re distracted by noise.

You know you have disciplined rituals if the organization feels they are experiencing “organizational flow”. I came across the concept of flow while reading Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Imagine for a moment that you are running a race. Your attention is focused on the movements of your body, the power of your muscles, the force of your lungs, and the feel of the street beneath your feet. You are living in the moment, utterly absorbed in the present activity. Time seems to fall away. You are tired, but you barely notice. According to Mihaly, what you are experiencing in that moment is known as flow, a state of complete immersion in a single activity.

Organizational flow extends this concept to an organization. People in organizations that perform rituals most often find the environment more rewarding because of this state of organizational flow.

Read more about Organizational Rituals in my book 5 to 50 to 500: How to build and run scalable organizations

Intent Driven Management

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