How Do Rituals Help Bring A Community Together?


Thursday, 6.16am

Sheffield, U.K.

Throughout human history, people have developed strong loyalties to traditions, rituals, and symbols. In the most effective organizations, they are not only respected but celebrated. It is no coincidence that the most highly admired corporations are also among the most profitable. – Rosabeth Moss Kanter

I have a memory of my grandmother. Every morning she would go out into the garden and wander around her favorite plants, picking flowers. She would come back into the kitchen, where a little shrine was set up and arrange the flowers around the images of the gods and family members that had passed on. It was a ritual, a habit that she and many millions of others did and still do every morning.

I had a different upbringing, one not immersed in the traditions of my culture and so I never really did any of these things. I watched from a distance, read my books and got on with whatever seemed important at the time.

As I grow older, however, the years seem to be marked by one ritual after another. In the West you have the big holiday periods, Easter, the summer break, Halloween, Christmas, and then you have all the others. It sometimes seems as if there’s a holiday or celebration happening whenever you turn around. It’s not just about religion, birthdays are marked with rituals, as are marriages and deaths.

Organizations have rituals too, from set times for work and lunch breaks to the weekly get togethers and social breaks. I suppose we get a feeling of comfort knowing these things exist, that there is an opportunity that has been structured to allow us to get together and get along. Rituals help us to know that there is a community here, we do the same things and we have experiences we can share together.

Intentionally designing rituals

What then, is the purpose of a ritual and how can you go about designing one that works for your organization? After all, rituals are just a concept and they can be used for good or bad. For example, I’ve heard stories of bosses who hold meetings and challenge their teams to justify their ideas in front of everyone else. Do they do this so that the best ideas come out or do they do that to show they are the smartest person in the room. Is that ritual the equivalent of a blood sport, a challenge to get in the ring and fight? Or should it be about something different, a shared experience that leads to focused, joint action?

The kind of rituals you create probably depend on the kind of culture you have and the sort of people who get to be leaders. If you have an aggressive, macho culture then your rituals are more likely to be confrontational, designed to select and display winners. If it’s more collaborative, accommodating, that comes through in rituals that are about joint ownership and multiple authorities.

I suppose you need to ask yourself what you want from these rituals, what are you trying to incentivize? And it often comes down to money and how that is used. Let’s take religious rituals, for example. If you think of the rituals you go to as part of the community then there is a good chance that there is an element of fund raising going on. It’s an event where you go, you get an experience and you put some money in the collection pot to keep funding the institution that gives you those experiences.

There are rituals you do because they are part of your own journey, typically what happens at various ages and stages of life. Again, while your religious institution might do them without a fee, you may feel like you need to contribute and that exchange takes place, money for god’s blessings. Now I’m not trying to denigrate the sanctity of the rituals but you have to accept that there is a basic economic process going on. It takes resources to give you these experiences and religions have had to work out a way to fund those experiences and give you what you need to feel part of that society and community.

This is why even secular alternatives to religions rituals will have an element of ritual about them. If you have a civil ceremony for your marriage, for example, there will still be a formal process that gives you the experience of going through a ritual, something that solemnizes your experience and marks it as different, somehow special from all the other moments in your life.

You have to ask yourself, then, what the rituals are that govern how you live and whether they work for you in the communities that you are part of. And, if you want to build a new community, you have to work out what you want people to do and design rituals that incentivize the kind of behavior you want from your community.

Designing rituals online

Perhaps the simplest way to think about rituals is to see them as something you do consistently, something that is done in the same way each time. That makes it easy for people to understand what happens and how they can join. For example, right now you will see lots of online meetups. People are desperate for connection and these meetups give you an opportunity to join a community of like-minded people and share an experience together.

But what is it that will make these meetups successful in the long run? Will they create communities or will they create megaphones for the founders or will they be platforms for placing messages that go out to people? The Internet lets you do all this and more and you may well find members wiling to listen whatever option you go for. So it starts with you trying to work out what it is you want people to do – listen quietly, engage actively or have a series of experiences that end with them buying something?

I think there is a balance you have to strike, starting by working out what kind of community leader you want to be, one that fires up the community and leads it or one that listens to the community and serves it. You have every kind of example out there in front of you, you have the chance to experience a myriad different ways of doing things and it doesn’t take too long to think through the extremes of how this might work. Do you exercise tight control on what is said or let free speech reign? Do you spend most of the time presenting or lecturing or do you encourage participation and practice? Some of your options online will be constrained by your choice of platform. It’s hard to engage with hundreds, thousands or millions of participants. You need to keep groups small if your objective is to do that. Then again, if you have that many people in your community then you’re going to have to use a megaphone.

A sense of belonging

I suppose what you have to think through is how someone is going to feel when they go through the experience you design. Will they feel like this is something they could take part in, belong to? Or is it too different for them to accept, too extreme? Or is it exactly the kind of extreme they’ve been looking for? Unfortunately you get every kind of extreme out there. We want to look at the cases that create a benefit to us as people and a community. So let’s look at what “belonging” means in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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