Build Collaborative Work Environments for Productivity
Rituals in the Workplace
Rituals bring people together, they create connections and bond individuals into a collaborative whole in the workplace.
Before embarking on a climb up Mt. Everest from Nepal, Sherpas customarily have a Puja, a Buddhist Blessing ceremony, to ask the Gods for guidance and a safe return. Our Sherpas invited us to join them.
Twelve Sherpas spent an afternoon building a six-foot stone altar on the edge of our camp and erecting a pole to serve as a central stringing point for 100 meters of prayer flags. The Buddhists believe these simple strips of inscribed cloth disperse their prayers as they flutter in the wind.
The following day we climbed out of our sleeping bags just as the sun was bathing the tops of the surrounding peaks in pink, had a quick breakfast, and gathered at the altar for the Puja. The Sherpas were already there, chanting and burning juniper branches for good luck. We each made offerings to Buddha, arranging them on the shelf on the altar. The Sherpas laid out sampa, balls of barley flour. The American climbers offered what we had — M&Ms, Fig Newtons, and coins.
The chanting went on for close to two hours, rising in wild crescendos, then falling to a murmur. Occasionally , the Sherpas would call us to throw handfuls of rice into the air, as another offering to Buddha. At the end of the ceremony we were instructed to throw barley flour in the air and smear it on each other’s face and hair. The white streaks represented a long, happy life.
Although we may not have felt the religious significance of the ceremony as much as the Sherpas did, it was a powerful experience. Through it, our Sherpas told us about something deeply important to them. For us, it helped create an atmosphere of understanding and, thus, trust. The ceremony was a small act of celebration — we had spent 21 days walking 125 miles just to get there — and it gave us the chance to come together as a team, to renew our spirits and refocus our energy on the challenge ahead.
For good measure, we also brought 125 pink plastic garden flamingos to the mountain with us. We used the birds as markers — they dotted the mountainside all the way to camp IV at 26,200 feet. I even took mine to the summit, and because they were so out of context, these little bright pink statues nestled against the white backdrop of the mountain always brought a smile and a break in the tension.
When I led an expedition to K2, the world’s second highest mountain, we didn’t have anything quite so formal or giddy. The night before leaving Islamabad my teammates and I had a nice dinner together and sat up until the wee hours in one of our hotel rooms sipping scotch and talking. When we arrived at Base Camp, I asked our cook, Ghulam Mohammad, to prepare a special meal to celebrate our arrival. It doesn’t matter what it is that you do, but you need something to bring the team together — something that says we’re special, we value each other, and we’re in this together.
In my construction business, before we begin work on a new renovation project, my team and I always walk through the home and look at the magnitude of the project. We visualize and talk about the possibilities — what the home will look and feel like when we’re finished. We’re also careful to celebrate the stages of construction with a crew meal. If we’re having a wretched day, as sometimes happens, we might pull everyone off the job for a communal lunch. Doing so takes us away from the project, together. It gives us distance. We can return as a team, with a different perspective and a more positive and creative attitude.
One of my clients, DaVita, formerly known as Total Renal Care, makes a ritual of its in-house language.
In 2000, Total Renal Care went through a complete leadership change and began a major restructure under the guidance of the new CEO, Kent Thiry. He and his new executive team understood that with the magnitude of change the company was undertaking, they would need buy-in and support from everyone to succeed. To make it even more challenging, they had 13,000 employees, located in 509 sites, across 38 states. The new leadership team focused on fundamentals: Thiry articulated a mission, and the top 600 leaders selected a new name, “DaVita” (loosely, Italian for “she/he gives life”) as well as seven core values which now guide decision making, performance management and behavior at all levels.
Today, DaVita is a “village”, not a “company”. Use of the word “village” helps constantly remind all teammates that the goal is a mutually caring, dedicated, and team-oriented atmosphere. Citizens of a village take care of each other and of the village, and, in return, a village takes care of its citizens. Is it simply words? Yes and no. Like the pink flamingos, the words themselves don’t create the culture, but consistently using the same few, carefully chosen words is an important facet. The words help create meaningful understandings leading to actions and an atmosphere where teammates know they are valued.
The key point to remember is that human beings don’t communicate simply through words—with their heads. In fact, some of the most important things in life are communicated through our hearts and through physical experience. So, to create a culture, we must also use music, song, theater (even if it is goofy!), constant visual reminders, and other practices which breed familiarity, recognition, and comfort. When all of this is combined, we begin to create an atmosphere where teammates understand they are valued, where they belong to something special—and the culture emerges.