A strong team culture can make the difference between having a productive, engaged team of workers, and a disconnected group of clock-punchers who happen to be co-located. One of the oldest and most powerful ways to strengthen that culture is through team rituals. Here’s an example of one such team ritual, and 35 other ideas to help you strengthen the bonds of your team.
A Muddy Sucking Sound
Two trucks slid out of the back of the airplane and fell into the sky.
Once clear of the prop-wash of the roaring turbo-jet engines, round olive-green parachutes billowed open perfectly over each vehicle. But even as he watched the successful chute deployment from the ground, the Lieutenant already knew he was in trouble.
Dangling on slender lines, the two Hummers wafted gently but irrevocably towards the swampiest, most inaccessible part of the Drop Zone. With a great splash and a muddy sucking sound, they lodged themselves in the mire, and the deflated parachutes ensnarled themselves in the tall elephant grass.
These were the trucks the Commander needed immediately; they were a critical part of the training mission we were on. But in the end it would be six long hours before the Lieutenant was able to get them onto solid ground.
Even as he was feverishly digging and winching trucks out of the swamp, he had to know that he was going to hear about this incident at the next Officer Call.
A Favorite Ritual
I was stationed with the U.S. Army in Panama at the time, and one of our unit’s many traditions was a monthly officer social call at the club. It was a great opportunity to meet in a low-pressure atmosphere, let off a little steam and stay connected with our brothers in uniform. It was also the scene of one of our monthly team rituals: The Malfunction Award.
The award was a fun way to recognize the most bone-headed act by any of the leaders over the previous 30 days. The process kicked off with nominations. As the Executive Officer presided, we would take turns pointing out missteps made by others. Elaborate story-telling and gross exaggeration were encouraged, and the more artful, humorous, or creative the nomination, the better.
Each nominee would have a chance to present a rebuttal, then we took a voice vote and the winner was named.
I remember laughing until it hurt at that next Officer Call as one Lieutenant nominated his brother officer for dropping his Hummers in the swamp. Somewhere during the nomination, the Lieutenant was dubbed the “U-boat Commander” for having delusions of being in the Navy and attempting to drive his submerged trucks through the water and mud to dry land.
Even before he finished his weak rebuttal, it was clear that he had won that month’s Malfunction Award.
The Malfunction Award
The award itself began as two simple items: An old rip cord from a reserve parachute, and a Jump Log. Each “lucky” winner was expected to write a short description of his “malfunction” into the log, and make a physical addition to the award.
During my time in the unit it became festooned with patches, pieces of parachute cloth, nylon cords, and a carrying case; it had grown several times its original size.
Over time, the Malfunction became the physical embodiment of our many efforts to accomplish difficult things, and a repository of team lore as we erred in the attempt.
As much as we hoped to avoid “winning” the Malfunction, there was a deeper meaning behind it that made it not only OK to receive, but even an honor to add our names to the Jump Log as part of this team ritual.
What Makes for Good Team Rituals?
Behavioral Scientist Nick Hobson defines rituals as “a series of fixed behaviours, which contain a symbolic meaning in them, and have no direct relationship to the task at hand.”
Hobson described the benefits that we were experiencing as a result of this ritual and the many others we engaged in as part of that team. “The downstream byproduct of engaging in rituals is multifold: including tighter groups that bond together; groups that are emotionally regulated and can respond to the ups and downs of pressure; and groups that are more motivated.”
While hard to precisely define, the components of an effective ritual seem to include the following:
Small team. As a social activity, rituals have to allow physical participation by group members; the larger the group, the more difficult this becomes.
Organic. Rituals work best when developed from within, rather than when imposed from above; they are something members want to do, not have to do.
Tied to a value. As a leadership tool, the most effective rituals are connected in some way to an organizational core value, and reinforce that value every time the ritual is performed.
Follows a script. A simple, clear process that is familiar to everyone is best – there’s a cue for when we do it, there are the things we do that are a part of it, and there’s a clear ending.
Not directly useful. Oddly enough, the purpose of the ritual is often more psycho-social than physical. It’s as much about the doing of the thing together than about any specific, tangible outcome.
Meaning Behind the Ritual
The Malfunction Award was all of these things for us, even as it provided for a lot of laughs at the end of the month.
Underlying it all was the understanding that everyone was doing their best, and the recognition that in trying to accomplish difficult things, mistakes were inevitable.
The ritual of the Malfunction Award enabled us to validate and celebrate the individual, even as we made light of his mistakes. Like a Hollywood roast, it was a high-level form of acceptance into the group.
Importantly, our senior leaders set the tone by not getting defensive when they themselves were nominated, and accepting the award with grace if they had “earned” it. The key in all of this was that nominations were always about the act, never about the actor.
Rituals can be as simple as putting on a pair of lucky socks in a certain way before every game, or more complex, like the ritual haka dance that the All Black rugby team from New Zealand perform before every game.
Besides the Malfunction, here are 35 more ideas for team rituals, loosely tied to the ways they can strengthen your team.
Rituals for Improving Productivity
- Convene a daily 10-minute stand-up huddle to set priorities for the day; have each person voice their “One Must Get Done” for the day.
- Start meetings by sharing a great team “Play of the Week” that someone else made.
- Close the weekly meeting by having someone share a “Pro-tip of the Week.” or “Lesson Learned the Hard Way.”
- Include a brief “Trivia Tuesday Quiz” in your meetings; make topics work-related; rotate responsibility for doing this so everyone gets to host.
- Take the meeting off-site once a month – a coffee shop, restaurant, library; get creative, wear distinctive clothing, take a group selfie, and hold a brain-storming session.
- Announce a “Team Value of the Week” on Monday and why it’s important; ask people to watch for it. On Friday huddle up and have everyone share examples they saw. The teammate most demonstrating the value as voted by the others gets a gift.
- Have an After Action Review after every significant event; capture what went well and where the team can make improvements next time; conclude with a group high-five.
- Award a monthly “Peer Bonus” – teammates nominate and vote a small monetary reward and a signed “Thank You” note to the person who contributed the most to team success that month.
- End meetings with a ritual phrase; example: after every briefing, the precinct captain in Hill Street Blues advises his officers, “Let’s be careful out there.” Teammates respond with a standard reply.
- Have an afternoon “stretch break” at an odd but significant time, maybe 3:37 pm; someone ring a bell, meet at the break room, stretch, and share how it’s going.
- Feature a different function or process each week, have the lead share “Five Fast Facts” about it that others may not know, but should.
- Nominate an “Unsung Hero” of the week to spotlight great behind-the-scenes work helping the team succeed; award a team-specific token or gift.
Rituals for Celebrating Milestones
- Wear Hawaiian shirts the day after the team meets a key deadline or scores a big win, play Hawaiian music to start the day, ceremonially place a ukulele on the conference room table.
- Have a putt-putt golf/pizza party or other kind of outing after reaching a key goal.
- Host a monthly social hour at a favorite night spot or restaurant and conduct your own version of the Malfunction Award.
- Celebrate work anniversaries and birthdays with a monthly lunch out; everyone writes an anonymous 3×5 card saying something positive about that person.
- Mount a sales bell, cymbal or gong – when someone makes a sale, announce the accomplishment and give the person the honor of striking the gong.
- When someone lands a new client, gather the team, talk about the ways that everyone contributed to the success, and form a human “High-Five” tunnel.
- Make a “growing totem” to be given to the person making the greatest team play each month as voted on by everyone else; the awardee must add something to the totem and explain its significance before it is awarded to the next person.
- Host a “Friday Follies Brown Bag” lunch and talk about team failures that led to successes.
- At the start of the week, announce last week’s top performers and have the boss ritually serve them coffee and doughnuts.
- Have an un-birthday, where the birthday person brings a treat of their choice for all to share; to get the treat, each teammate gives them a card with something positive written on it.
Rituals for Forming Connections
- Do something together for the community once a quarter – work at a food bank, adopt a park, find a need and fill it, then go have lunch together.
- Have a nomination process for conducting a monthly “Random act of Kindness” that you can all do together, then go make it happen.
- Pitch in to donate holiday meals to families in need.
- Share “highs” and “lows” for the week, they can be personal or work-related.
- Pick a question that everyone answers; example “What is your favorite food, and why?” Put the answers in a hat, draw randomly, and try to guess who belongs to each.
- Check-in/Check-out – first thing in the morning circle up, announce a topic, like “weather” or “animal.” Each person “checks in” based on how they are feeling. “I’m checking in as a cheetah today because I need to move fast to get this contract done.“
Rituals for Welcoming New Team Members
- Gather the team and officially welcome the new person; give them a “team mug” for their coffee/tea.
- Assign them a “sponsor for the day” each day of the week until they have been teamed with everyone; at the end of each day ask them to share three things they learned.
- After 90 days on the team hold a special “induction ceremony” where they are given the team T-shirt, lab coat, hat, lanyard, or other memento to recognize their status as full team member.
- Have each teammate contribute something small, inexpensive, and unique to a “survival kit” for the new person. Hold a presentation ceremony and have each person explain how the item will help.
- Conduct a mini-graduation ceremony when the new person finishes orientation, complete with certificate and playing of Pomp and Circumstance.
- Each day have someone different bring in “Rookie Cookies” – treats for the new person – and take some time to introduce themselves and get to know each other.
- Engineer an in-office scavenger hunt for the new hires that encourages them to get to know people all over the organization.
Team Rituals – The Takeaway
Peter Drucker is credited with saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The best way to build that culture is to develop team rituals that reinforce what’s important.
Use the examples above as a starting point, mix and match them, customize to make them uniquely your own, and have fun with it.
Time invested in building our team’s culture will pay for itself many times over through tighter personal bonds, greater productivity, higher engagement, and lower turnover.
And now, having completed this blog post, I will strike the ceremonial gong. You may want to plug your ears.