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The Power of Using Rituals in Company Culture

The concept of practicing rituals at work may seem a bit odd. We often associate them with religious customs or recreational activities like athletics, where they carry a lot of symbolism. In these situations, rituals are used to unify people in their belief or support of a practice or organization and deepen their commitment.

These are precisely some of the reasons why rituals can also benefit businesses. In an era of historically low employee engagement, rituals can be powerful tools to help workers feel more connected to their employers. Additionally, rituals are a highly effective means of reinforcing behaviors that maximize morale and performance.

Rituals, Routines, Habits

Rituals are not the same as routines or habits, although there is some interconnection. Ness Labs founder and neuroscience researcher Anne-Laure Le Cunff explains why rituals and routines aren’t the same in her company’s newsletter:

“The difference between a routine and a ritual is the mindset behind the action. While routines can be actions that just need to be done—such as making your bed or taking a shower—rituals are viewed as more meaningful practices that have a real sense of purpose.

Rituals do not have to be spiritual or religious. What matters is your level of intentionality. With rituals, you are fully engaged with a focus on the experience of the task, rather than its mere completion. You are investing your highest levels of energy and consciousness.”

In a work environment, routines can be tedious, skipped over, or even resented if employees perform them without understanding their importance. However, when people participate in rituals, they’re engaged with the experience of the task rather than just completing it. A ritual carries more weight because it feels relevant; it’s not just an action to cross off a list.

Michael Norton, Harvard Professor of Business Administration and author of The Ritual Effect, concurs and offers his take on the distinction between a habit and a ritual:

“We may do both routinely, even unconsciously, but we ascribe more meaning to the latter.”

He explains why rituals are more potent than habits.

“In teasing out the differences between ritual and habit, there is not a distinct set of behaviors that belongs solely to rituals and another distinct set that belongs to habits. Instead, it’s the emotion and meaning we bring to the behaviors. For habits, it’s the end goal or the what. For ritual, it’s about the how.

Good habits automate us, helping us get things done. Rituals animate us, enhancing and enchanting our lives with something more.”

Rituals and Workplace Culture

McKinsey executive Bill Schaninger connects the dots between ritual and organizational culture in a “McKinsey Talks Talent” podcast. He notes that rituals are essentially a custom.

“Typically, when you talk about ritual in the workplace, you’re almost always grouping it with other elements that help define culture, as in the classic Ed Schein definition of culture rooted in rights, rituals, ceremonies, language, behaviors, and generally accepted norms and values.”

As in our personal lives, rituals at work signify appreciation for and being mindful of something that matters. Culture Partners executive Jessica Kreigel explains further in a Forbes article:

“In the workplace, rituals are especially important to company culture because they help everyone in the organization feel that sense of belonging.”

She cites a Harvard Business School study that found ritualized work activities increased the meaning people found in their jobs by 16 percent. This finding correlated with data showing that employees engaged in these activities were more likely to “go the extra mile for the company.”

Erica Keswin, workplace strategist and author of Rituals Roadmap, has studied the effect of workplace rituals on employees and organizational success. She writes:

“Rituals go beyond their practical purpose, moving participants beyond transaction and into meaning.”

Through her research, Keswin learned why rituals were so influential in the workplace. She cites the current dismal employee engagement statistics and echoes many of today’s talent experts by noting that people crave connection with their employers. She points out that rituals are tools that build relatability: “Humans love rituals because they maintain group cohesion.”

Additionally, Keswin reminds leaders that although their impact is significant, rituals usually cost nothing.

“The investment required to blend rituals into our work life is phycological, emotional, and strategic, but not necessarily financial.”

The cascading benefits of weaving rituals into the workday go beyond more connection and engagement. They include:

  • Improved cooperation
  • Social cohesion
  • Perceived social support
  • Higher productivity
  • Lower anxiety and stress

In Rituals Roadmap, Keswin breaks down the impact rituals have on what she calls the Three Ps:

  • Psychological Safety
  • Purpose
  • Performance


Edgar H. Schein and Warren G. Bennis coined the term psychological safety in the mid-1960s when they wrote Personal and Organizational Change Through Group Methods. They defined the condition as a climate "which encourages provisional tries and which tolerates failure without retaliation, renunciation, or guilt."

Now a buzzword permeating the complex, evolving business environment, psychological safety is recognized as a vital part of the employee value proposition. Rituals can play a powerful role in establishing this comfort zone.

Erica Keswin writes: “Sharing rituals at work is the perfect way to help us feel included, and thus safe from the threat of social exclusion.” She cites Harvard professor Amy Edmonson’s research, which proves that psychological safety is directly linked to employee engagement. She concludes: “Rituals are the tools to help accelerate the sense of belonging, gathering all kinds of people together.”


Like connection, workers crave a sense of purpose in their jobs. Leaders can help employees develop their professional purpose by clarifying how they contribute to an important shared cause, priorities, and values.

Leadership expert and coach Clifford Morgan delves into outlining purpose for employees in an article for LinkedIn. He emphasizes that painting the big picture is the first step, but employees won’t retain the sense of purpose without follow-up. He advises leaders to regularly repeat activities or rituals that reinforce the big picture to make the perspective stick.

Keswin agrees and points to a Gallup study emphasizing that purpose must be actualized in their daily work to inspire and unite employees. Rituals, she says, are the ideal method to link workers’ personal sense of purpose to their company’s overarching purpose and authentic, actionable values. “Rituals are here to help ground and guide.”


In her book, Keswin notes that studies show that rituals factored into team success. She quotes leadership expert and author Paolo Guenzi, who conducted much of this research. Guenzi made this observation in a Harvard Business Review article:

“In all the high performing sports teams and companies we studied we found leaders making extensive use of ritual. Indeed, in the sports context, we found that creating or reviving club rituals was almost the first thing that a new coach would do — especially in a team turnaround situation.

Smart business leaders do the same, and if performance is struggling at your company, maybe a bit more ritual can deliver that sense of shared identity, stakeholder commitment, emotional energy, and productive behavior that you’re looking for.”

Keswin concludes: “Rituals guide goal-directed performance.”

CultureWise founder David J. Friedman believes rituals influence behavior to such a degree that he made them a core element of his method of building and sustaining organizational culture. He has leveraged the power of rituals throughout his years as a CEO and advisor and shares their value in his book, Culture by Design. He writes that rituals are the key to making things last, and their impact is game-changing.

In his book, Friedman shares a variety of rituals he developed through the years to strengthen culture and performance. He notes that rituals help people stick with things that they wouldn’t usually have the motivation or discipline to do otherwise. Rituals are simple to do, but they influence the work environment in complex ways. When introduced strategically and practiced regularly, rituals reinforce behaviors that radically improve performance.