Springing out of winter habits

April 17, 2008

Maybe it was the distinct lack of snow, the longer days or the overnight emergence of patios (yes, in Canada, this is a big deal), but if all those hints weren’t a dead giveaway that spring had finally sprung, then it had to be the sale on chocolate eggs. In fact, for the first time in nearly a century, Easter this year came much earlier than usual thanks to good ‘old Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicea AD 325, who decreed that Easter should fall around the time of the vernal equinox (or when the length of day and night is nearly equal in every part of the world).

While a snowy Easter may have thrown us off, fortunately our staff meetings did not. (I mean that sincerely, as they always involve one of Laura Malin’s scrumptious meals.) Upon our return to the office, we sat down to our usual Tuesday lunch and exchanged updates on our weekend. On this particular occasion one of Laurie Clarke’s (COO of The Tatham Group) stories generated a healthy debate on how rituals affect the culture in an organization. It all started with a conversation she had with three other couples over the weekend at the cottage.

At dinner one night, the group – made up of varying ethnicities – got to talking about how each person used rituals to celebrate Easter. For instance in Slavic cultures, it is common to paint eggs using wax and dyes. In France, some people roll raw eggs down a gentle slope. The surviving egg is declared victorious and the winner gets a prize. Of course, there’s always the internationally known Easter-egg hunt. But where do these traditions come from, and why do we follow them? Laurie observed that not one of her guests could offer an answer to these questions. The general consensus was, “That’s just the way it’s always been done.”

Those eight little words permeate many, many facets of our life. In fact, countries, communities, groups, families and organizations all create and subscribe to rituals and traditions. We have ingrained certain behaviours into our daily lives as a way of expressing our identity. Rituals are nothing more than habits, which allow us to assert who we are and where we come from. And as humans, there is nothing more comforting than feeling like we belong.

Though his work was published almost twenty years ago, Michael Rosen’s take on the role of rituals in organizations still applies today. He writes: “In order for people to function within any given setting…they must have a continuing sense of what that reality is about in order to be acted upon. Rites and ceremonials thus presumably have… functions in recreating these shared meaning systems of an organization’s culture.”

So, when a company holds a Christmas party, it is expected that the boss will pick up the tab, and that there will be music and dancing and alcohol. This gives us a predictable pattern of behaviour and a sense of security: every year there is a party, where we can all spend one social evening together.

Rosen also writes, organizational rituals show the existence of social relationships, ideas and values. While social process is reproduced (hierarchy) and chaos is kept at bay, rituals are enacted to provide explicit purpose to the existence of an organization, to make visible an ideology, to communicate the nature of certain relationships among individuals and to balance the organization against the unknown.

Although rituals in organizations are inevitable and necessary, here’s the problem: they also allow us to slip into a comfortable, somnambulant daze, denying us the primitive need to constantly readjust to a changing environment. Left unquestioned for too long, rituals allow big burly Status Quo to slink into the room and settle onto our deep leather couch, with no hope of ever getting up.

Sociologists Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers make a good point about how habits are perceived today. “After many eons, we observe habits as laws governing all behavior; but at the beginning, they were choices among many possibilities.”

In other words, conforming to habits just because they give us the comfort of predictable outcome means we are avoiding the opportunity to explore other choices. What if those rituals are no longer relevant? And, in a world that is limitless with possibilities, why let fear prevent us from changing?

Knowing where rituals came from, what they mean and why they are of value, ensures they are observed for the right reasons. When we know why certain habits / rituals / processes are important and necessary, we stop clinging to the belief that it’s ‘just the way it’s always been done’. Instead, we confidently proceed (with, or without them) knowing we are actively shaping our identity, both as individuals and as organizations.

In the words of Jim Estill, CEO of Canadian-based Synnex, “I constantly look at my habits because we are the product of what we repeatedly do. Who we are is in part determined by our habits. I’m [always] looking for which ones support what I want to do and what I want to be.”

How appropriate then, to use this time – the spring – to shed our bulky winter habits and leap forward new and good ones that will enable us to evolve and grow.