Maintaining Team Health With Meaningful Rituals

Olga Trusova


Simple rituals have become more significant recently as we’ve moved from physical meeting rooms to the virtual ones during the pandemic. In absence of being able to clearly read the “room” (i.e. people’s body language, face mimicry that depicts emotion) or to pick up on various other non-explicit cues we get from face-to-face physical interactions, having a common language for sharing daily “how are you’s” is a critical step to the overall individual and team health.

Have you noticed that “How are you doing?” is often used as a greeting instead of a question we expect an answer to? It’s a common courtesy phrase we use to greet strangers and co-workers not because we don’t care about them and their day, but while the question may be simple, the answer sometimes is not. It is hard to put feelings to words on short notice and find a quick answer to such a simple question.

Last year, I was working with a wonderful designer Kay on creating a prototype for a new mobile app. This was the first time we’ve worked together and, of course, when we met in person, I asked her how she was doing, to which she replied “Great” before we went on with our meeting. As part of that project, we were planning an interactive workshop with multiple key stakeholders. Kay was in charge of the agenda and setup; I was in charge of research and facilitation.

We met daily for about a week and everything was going well, but Kay had to step out of our planning sessions every hour or so. Toward the end of the week, I noticed how sad Kay looked despite how well the project was going. I asked her again how she was doing and she broke down. Her father had passed away two weeks ago. Her mom lived in another city and Kay had to step out to call and comfort her mother. I gave her a big hug and some words of consolation. At that point, I wish I found a better way earlier to understand what she was going through when I first noticed her sadness.

According to most prominent researchers on emotions, there are five Universal Emotions with various states of feelings in each: fear, anger, sadness, disgust, and enjoyment. For example, sadness contains both disappointment and despair. The intensity of these states varies: we can feel mild or strong disappointment, but we can only feel intense despair. All states of sadness are triggered by a feeling of loss. Kay was experiencing various states of sadness throughout the day triggered by the loss of her father.

Paul Ekman and his daughter, Eve Ekman, supported by his holiness Dalai Lama, developed the Atlas of Emotions to help us become more aware of our feelings and be more mindful as we move through the day and life. (Fun fact: this work served as the basis for the Pixar movie, Inside Out.)

According to Ekmans, each emotion is triggered and then followed by a response. Practicing mindfulness can help us get in touch with what triggers certain emotions, and come up with strategies for the appropriate type of response. It is not easy to do on the spot. So, to answer a question of “How are you doing?” or “How are you feeling?” is not so simple after all, since it requires first deeply understanding our own emotions (with their various states of feelings and triggers) in the moment.

That is why color can be an effective prompt to represent your mood of the day. In the beginning of a team meeting, I ask people to pick a color that represents their current mood and share why they picked it, if they’re willing to voice such details. It’s always surprising how quickly everyone picks a color and how open they are about sharing the reason behind the choice. I wish I used a quick check-in tool like this with my design colleague, Kay, in the beginning of the project to give her an easier way to express what was happening in her life.

Color of the day becomes even more critical when you’re working remotely with other team members as shorthand for conveying where you are emotionally via phone calls, virtual conferencing or email to facilitate better interactions with others.

Some teams incorporate sharing a “color of the day” as an additional mood-o-meter during such daily standups and post it to their Slack profile.

We often begin our work day by making or reviewing to-do lists and tasks. That experience can be anxiety-inducing setting the wrong tone for the rest of the day. What if instead you asked yourself about how you are feeling using colors? Using a “color of the day” is a quick way to assess health of the team and yourself in a psychologically safe way, to provide common language for the group to share potentially sensitive topics, and to understand where everyone’s coming from.

You can do this with others or by yourself to start the day by getting in touch with how you’re feeling using simple colors. Pantone has a great selection and variety beyond primary colors to represent more depth of emotion. For example, Living Coral or Radiant Orchid (enjoyment), Chili Pepper (fear) or Classic Blue (sadness) — Pantone’s new color of the year 2020.

You can also do a self-check at the end of the day and over time develop your own palette of colors most frequently used to describe your feelings.

Dot voting is a great design thinking tool to help identify which colors you’d like to “redesign” or focus on. Using sticky dots, focus on what matters most by voting for your Darling (the most delightful day), Low Hanging Fruit (the easiest day), and the Moonshot (a hard but amazing day). You can use voting dots to vote for up to 3 in each category. Put a green dot next to the low hanging fruit, the red one — next to your darling or most likely to delight, and blue — next to your moonshot:

  • Low Hanging Fruit
  • Most Likely to Delight
  • The Moonshot

Now, brainstorm how you would do that day differently (if it was a particularly hard day, or simply uneventful and not very delightful) based on your vote and color by writing each idea down on a post-it note and sticking it onto a wall. Use the following Rules of Brainstorming from design thinking to guide this exercise to be more generative:

Another morning ritual I’ve practiced while working with Starbucks teams on new, innovative products is a psychological safety exercise using a simple 2x2 grid with mood on the vertical axis and energy on the horizontal axis. Numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 filling in the grid with 1 being high energy, high mood, 3 — low energy, low mood. I asked my team mates (but you can also use this as a self-check-in tool), to pick a number that represents their mood and energy and share why. It’s a way to safely share a “3” if you didn’t sleep well last night or had a rough morning, or the opposite — a “1” if you’re ready to go and full of energy.

The concept of psychological safety is a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

It’s rare that someone is always a “1” and it is healthy for the team to know if a team mate is not feeling 100% present, not because of the topic of the meeting or team dynamics, but simply because they need more coffee. It’s important to create psychological safety for the team to be able to express their feelings without jeopardizing work. Google cites psychological safety as the #1 key factor in why Google teams are successful — team members feel safe in taking risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.