Six Corporate Habits and Rituals that seem to be far-fetched

Six Corporate Habits and Rituals that seem to be far-fetched

The emotional brain neither has the capacity for, nor believes in, experimentation. Whatever it does is to be done the same way every time. Simply put, it firmly believes in the motto:

Experimentum periculosm – Experimentation is perilous.

This conservatism is both an asset and a liability. Both individual habits and institutionalized habits or rituals must be checked from time to time to see if they are working for us or against us.

The Persistence of Habit

Dinosaurs are creatures of habit, and their brains have a way of elevating habits to truths. A lizard will do the same thing in the same way for the same reason, until his habit becomes the only way to do it. If you don’t believe me, just think of how you felt, riding in the carpool, when the driver decided to take a slightly different route to work.

When it was your turn to drive again, you probably still took your own route, even if the other way was shorter and had fewer stop-lights.

Once we have learned habits, we don’t question them; we revere them.

Until you really think about it, you don’t realize how much time you spend flying on automatic pilot. Once you’ve learned a complicated sequence, such as riding a bicycle or operating a business machine, you don’t keep talking to yourself about what you’re doing; you just do it.

Habits are much more efficient than thinking through the same series of actions again and again; you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. Relying too much on habits, however, can send you into a rut of boredom and inflexibility.

Individuals aren’t the only creatures of habit. Groups can get into ruts too. For instance, think about the pattern of your regular departmental meeting. Does it follow the same order each time? Can you predict who’s going to sit where and who will say what; which issues will be brought up; who will object to everything and who will agree with everything everybody else says? Or, consider office procedures. How do you order new equipment? How are people evaluated? How is it decided who gets paid what?

Usually, the first way something is done is the way it always will be done. If you’ve decided it’s time to break an individual or group habit at work, remember that your emotional brain will assure you that your habit is the one true way. What can your cortex do? You can use the empirical approach, which involves observing and taking measurements, rather than acting on faith. The empirical approach is the basis of science; the emotional brain has a strong tendency to act on faith. Faith can be a wonderful thing, but sometimes it’s just not efficient.

In the empirical approach, you set goals, test your hypotheses and make plans accordingly. The emotional brain will urge you to just do it because it seems right and fits what you already know. If you follow the Emotional Brain, it’s not possible to learn anything new from a situation.

Here’s how to make an empirical business decision:

  1. Set a goal. What do you want to happen?
  2. Establish criteria. How will you know if what you wanted to happen has happened?
  3. Think of possibilities and alternative ways of reaching the goal. When you can see the alternatives, your cortex is working. The emotional brain never knows from alternatives.
  4. Pick several alternatives and try them.
  5. Evaluate. Actually measure results and compare them to your criteria to see which one worked best.
  6. Choose the best solution and use it.

We have developed a ritual for cortical thinking, using the emotional brain tendency to follow step-by-step procedures. Following the steps, however, makes you activate your cortex at each stage. This is the basic pattern of emotional brains. People’s Emotional Brains want to be told what to do. What we’re really telling you to do is think before you act and you’ll be fine.

Now here’s one way to make a emotional business decision:

  1. Get an idea from some authority figure, maybe your boss or some business psychologist, a book or anybody.
  2. Tell everybody that this idea is the basis for all the changes you’re going to make.
  3. Do things the way you’ve always done them.
  4. If something good happens, take credit for it. If something bad happens, point out that it just goes to show that the old ways are best.

The Power of Ritual

Religion has its place in business. I’m not talking about saying your prayers before a merger meeting, but about the power of shared habits or rituals that point to a connection between daily events and something bigger, a connection with other people in the same company doing the same thing for the same reason.

The earliest rituals were ceremonies of transition, habits that symbolized evolutions from one state to another— rites of passage for birth, becoming an adult, joining the tribe, marriage and death. People who participated in the rituals felt a part of something bigger and more powerful than themselves.

Rituals develop at points of change in people’s corporate lives—hiring, promotion, transfer and the like. Rituals have power. The way changes are handled communicates strongly about the bond between the person and the company.

Hitler and the Nazi party used ritual better than anyone else in recent years. By their uniforms and ceremonies, their pomp and circumstance, they got an entire country to turn off their cortexes and use their emotional brains. This surely gives you an idea of the tremendous power of some rituals, for good or evil.

We are not advocating wearing hats or putting on pageants. Just planning. All companies develop rituals, but in most they are understated—such as going to personnel to sign the papers as a rite of passage for promotion.

The name of what is happening is seldom spoken, even though what is happening is very important to the person involved.

It could be a time for the revealing of new knowledge and fostering a stronger feeling of belonging. The emotional brain has a big say in the feeling of being a loyal part of the herd, and it could use some direction. Let’s look at a few corporate rituals and see what they communicate and how they might be used.

Joining the Company.

When a person joins a company is an excellent time to begin making him or her feel part of the corporate culture. In many companies, the whole hiring experience seems to be designed to conceal what actually goes on from the new person. It all begins with the job interview. This ritual almost universally involves a mutual sales job. The people in the company tell you how great it is; you tell them how great you are.

The underlying rules communicated here are that it’s important to withhold certain information because it might create a bad impression and that it’s standard procedure to lie for a good cause.

At most companies, new employees have to rely on rumor, gossip and stories to learn how things are actually done, while the formal channels of communications say, Everyone is equal here; the rules apply to everyone. The grapevine lets you know which people are more equal than others.

The hallmark of dysfunctional corporations is that they don’t tell you what the real rules are because the real rules don’t sound too good.

Instead, people talk about pretend rules and live by the real ones. Whenever you get a group of people together, you find idiosyncratic and arbitrary rules. That isn’t the problem.

The problem comes from the pretending that what’s going on is not really what’s going on.

Most of us were inducted into adulthood by families who did the same kind of pretending, so it’s easy to understand from the first day on the new job that there are some things one never talks about. Is this the best way to do things?

In your company, isn’t it true that certain behaviors are rewarded and certain behaviors definitely are not? Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody had told you those things on your first day on the job?

Some companies are experimenting with the Realistic Job Preview technique, in which people are encouraged to tell new or prospective employees what it’s really like to work there. This technique can be a powerful means for fostering honesty and building trust. Other companies are experimenting with boot camp for new employees, at which an effort is made to induct them into the corporate culture. The emphases are on ceremony and honesty. Old employees are encouraged to come in and tell stories about how things really are and what to expect. This kind of ritual can lead to a strong sense of affiliation and the feeling that, from the first, you’re enough a part of the herd to be told how things really are.


Needless to say, the emotional brain would not approve of this boot camp. The emotional brain believes in hazing, another joining ritual. The idea is that the new members of the herd are so low that they aren’t even in the hierarchy yet and they have to be tested to see if they make the grade.

Much of the hazing ritual involves taking the measure of a person: seeing how far you can push someone to make him angry, where he will draw the line, how good her political instincts are, whether he has a sense of humor or is willing to be deferential. The group can discover all of these things quite quickly by giving the new person a hard time and seeing how he or she handles it. The kind of hard time may differ from the factory floor to the fifty- third floor, but the purpose is the same.

The concept of hazing is universal and could be adapted positively for business. For example, new employees could be expected to do certain tasks and be told at the outset that the purpose is to show their style of working. This kind of ritual already is in place in academia, where doing a masters thesis or doctoral dissertation is a task that not only shows that you’ve learned how to do research in a particular area, but also that you’ve mastered the academic system well enough to be a part of it, that you have the political savvy to actually get the degree.

Status Symbols.

No discussion of ritual would be complete without mentioning status symbols. The Emotional Brain is always on the lookout for cues about who is on top. The cues are virtually everywhere. What clothes people wear, what they drive, where they eat, what restroom they use, the size and decor of their offices, you name it. When these cues are displayed, the emotional brain can be fooled into thinking that one’s status is higher than it really is. A great deal of management literature is designed to teach people how to fool the emotional brain in this way, so much so that large parts of the corporate world wear gray suits, drive gray BMWs and eat lunch at Chez Louis.

The emotional brain is smarter than that. When everybody has the same, easily visible status symbols, it will pick out more subtle ones that still have meaning. Then there will be more books to read.

Corporate Uniforms.

Some companies require corporate uniforms—not the whole outfit, just a jacket, tie, lapel pin or the like. Uniforms are aimed at fostering a sense of esprit de corps, but sometimes they can do just the opposite. If, for example, the CEO doesn’t wear the uniform, then wearing it is a mark of being a grunt, and the ritual becomes one of fealty rather than affiliation.

The ritual also goes wrong if wearing the uniform or displaying the object is something you have to do or you get in trouble rather than a choice to show your loyalty or a reward for making the grade. It would be better if the lapel pins could be earned instead of required.

The Change-in-Procedure Ritual.

Few companies do this, but the emotional brain would love a ceremony for burning the old forms, or making the final call on the old phone equipment or turning in the final request on the outdated purchase order. The ritual would reinforce the idea that a new procedure, which will be stressful and difficult at first, has everyone’s support and is something the group will take on together.

The Sign-of-Appreciation Ritual.

Showing appreciation for significant deeds will become especially important as more companies are legally required to base salaries and promotions on seniority rather than achievement. Most people will work very hard if they think they have a chance of getting some kind of recognition, such as employee of the month or something similar. It’s important, however, for management to be very clear about the requirements for earning the award, because often people aren’t clear about the criteria and just assume it’s a reward for brown-nosing.

Before beginning a mad whirl of staff birthday parties and employee-of-the-month celebrations, however, you need to decide what kinds of behaviors or achievements you’re going to reward. They should be the kinds of behaviors you want to see more of: being a team player, showing bravery in the face of adversity, or whatever your company or department holds dear.

A word or two, also, about noncontingent rewards like birthday cakes and Christmas cards from the boss. Once begun, these rituals must be continued or people feel insulted. It’s best to keep the ritual manageable from the beginning, a birthday card instead of a cake, for instance, or a sign on the person’s office door announcing his or her special day.

Affiliative rewards such as the office party or company picnic can turn into rituals of serfdom if the company doesn’t take the time to find out what the rituals mean to the people who have to carry them out. A company picnic, for example, can mean the thing you have to go to and smile during and act like you’re having a great time at or else you’ll get in trouble with the old man.

The Years-of-Service Ritual.

A ritual is only important if it points to something that’s really there. If there is no real honor, benefit or gratitude for twenty years of service, then the ritual is hollow and empty. Sometimes a company will try to use a ceremony instead of something real, such as rewarding twenty years of service with more responsibility, more money, a more secure job and more respect within the business community.

Rituals can be an important and positive part of corporate life. To be a positive influence, they must reflect reality, not stand in the place of reality.


Image Credits

  • Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash
  • Photo by Francesco Gallarotti on Unsplash
  • Photo by Vladislav Klapin on Unsplash
  • Photo by Sofiya Levchenko on Unsplash
  • Photo by Nicolai Berntsen on Unsplash
  • Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash
  • Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash