The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 216

Margaret Hagan and Kursat Ozenc

Rituals For Work

How can you introduce rituals—a intentional processes with patterns or scripts—into the workplace? Margaret Hagan, PHD, and Kursat Ozenc, PHD, are the co-authors of Rituals for Work: 50 Ways to Create Engagement, Shared Purpose, and a Culture that Can Adapt to Change. Discover how to introduce rituals into the workplace without people rolling their eyes or cringing, whether rituals lose their value if they’re done too often, and how to use rituals to help teams move on from conflict.

About

Get the book, Rituals for Work from Amazon here:

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Bios:

KURSAT OZENC, PHD, is a Senior User Experience Designer at SAP Labs Palo Alto. He teaches interaction and service design at Stanford Institute of Design (the d.school). He also leads workshops on rituals for personal and group relationships, organizational change, and civic design.

MARGARET HAGAN, PHD, JD, is director of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford University. She teaches classes at the d.school and is a thought leader in the legal industry, pioneering how to bring a human-centered approach to how legal and government groups serve people.

Video

Transcript

This transcript is unedited.

Peter:

Today, we have partners in crime, Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagen. They have written together the book rituals for work curse shot is a strategic design consultant. And at SAP labs, he’s a lecturer at Stanford university D school. We’ve spoken to a number of people on this podcast from the D school. It’s an awesome school. Margaret is director of legal design lab, Stanford university of law school. She’s also a lecture at the D school. They’ve written this terrific book incredibly practical it’s rituals for work, 50 ways to create engagement, shared purpose, and a culture that can adapt to change. Welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast. Kursat Ozenc, Margaret.

Kursat and Margaret:

Hi, thanks for having us.

Peter:

I’m so happy that you’ve been able to join me. Let’s just start with like, why, you know, this is, this is the most practical book I’ve read in a really long time. It’s actually literally filled with things to do. And I’m sort of curious what led you to write the book? Like why you felt like it was a useful, needed book to write.

Kursat:

So it started the class we have been, I’ve been teaching it to d school. The class is called three to design our fifth year in the class. I think the starting point for the book is really how do we design a reading intentionality to work place culture. So, and then we both designers. So I think our approach to design problem, we always look at the practical things. So that’s why I think we thought, Oh, the NBC or the U S we observed that there’s a real need to bring intentionality to workplace culture. And I think that was maybe the starting point. So he wanted to write the book and also we collected lots of examples from organizations and be ourselves or the students design these rituals. So over time, it’s almost like a snowball, it created a collection of rituals. We thought we should share this with with the broader community. So that’s how I think it started then. Yeah.

Peter:

So let me ask you a couple of questions about that. So when you say, bring intentionality to to work culture, I have a couple of questions. One is do have you found, you have a sense of, you’ve done some research around whether these rituals actually impact work culture, because there’s so many elements of work culture that seem unmovable and, and, you know, like so structurally embedded and like, and if I, if we do some rituals before meeting or at different times, can we really impact work culture that way?

Margaret:

So I know we built off of a burgeoning group of researchers, especially in social psychology that are doing that kind of research. I know Kisha is starting out some research on exactly this question of work culture, creativity, collaboration, and how rituals might or might not amplify those in the book. We review some of that literature in the most practical way possible with these kind of controlled studies that are coming from the worlds of sports, the worlds of consumer products the worlds of kind of family life and other things that we can think of as pretty equivalent to some work settings, at least where in these social science experiments, the performance of a ritual, even if it doesn’t totally make sense, or it’s not completely practical, does have these payoffs of bonding of emotional stability of resilience of these other things. So we know that there is this body of literature that does show a lot of evidence for the power of these rituals. I think rituals at work still is pretty under studied from a social science perspective. And I think that’s part of the reason why we were collecting a lot of these. You could call them interventions or behaviors or rituals is that hopefully we can do some more studies of them.

Peter:

So I’m curious, like there’s a two part question. One is like, what is a ritual? And then the second is like, what makes a ritual, a ritual? This might be the same question. What makes a ritual ritual versus, Hey, let’s do something.

Margaret:

Yeah. So I think we’re pretty liberal and open about the term ritual kind of keeping it pretty flexible. There’s a few components that I think are essential that divide a ritual from halos, just do something one is that intentionality or that awareness that something special, something meaningful, something momentous is going on. So a plain old routine that’s completely thoughtless or something where no one is having some kind of higher level of experience purpose.

Peter:

So it’s like, we’re going to, we’re going to do something, but we’re gonna put some, we’re gonna, we’re gonna frame it. And we’re gonna put some clear intention behind it that imbues the moment and imbues the behavior with some kind of particular yeah,

Margaret:

[crosstalk] And there should be that awareness of it. And it could come later or during, you might think that doing that, the other key factors is that it should follow some kind of pattern or script, even if it’s the first time I’m doing that ritual. And I think that’s where, when we do ritual spotting and look back at our life and think, what are the rituals we actually have that maybe we don’t call it rituals. It’s finding those things that follow the same words being used, same physical actions being used, but something of that repetition, that’s part of the power of it too.

Peter:

That would be easy for us to find if it’s easy for me. If I thought back to look and say, Hey, here are some rituals I have. And even thinking in that way, and this might be this might separate intention from impact, which is, I probably have some rituals where I have a certain intention that I do over and over again that actually have a negative impact and that, and that it’s worth using that lens to think back, what are some repeated patterns of behavior or repeated, you know, moments that I tend to like even if I, even if I, you know, I’m just thinking personally, like I see my son in the morning and I say, good morning, Daniel. And he grunts. And then I say, why are you grunting? Why don’t you just say, good morning, it’s nice to say. And so the ritual doesn’t just become good morning. The ritual becomes with an intention of good morning, but it comes a ritual of his first experience of me in the morning is I berate him for not responding to where I want to respond. And that becomes the ritual of our morning. Am I thinking about this sadly, but correctly?

Margaret:

For us as designers, we always want to think about getting to a more positive experience, but that’s kind of, this is one of the exercises we do in the class is that kind of inventory or spotting, and then thinking about how can we make that better? Is there some way to play off the grunt or is there some way to change that, but yeah, recognizing that, that, that routine or that pattern is actually some, it’s an opportunity for improving that ritual or making it work for you in a better way and him as well. So,

Peter:

No, it’s amazing. So just thinking in terms of the construct of rituals can help us to change the dynamic of our rituals and to see what’s working for us. And also what’s not like what, you know, what we’re doing, what rituals we have that are unintentional and unconscious, but still end up impacting our culture.

Margaret:

Yeah. I would say we often talk about that as amplification or nurturing some things that are almost photo rituals that might be happening at a workplace or killing things off, or, but kind of having that gardener mentality,

Kursat:

Like bringing that there’s something here, but yeah. Is it good almost that lands brings intentionality and they can assess that and then either amplify it or, yeah,

Peter:

The ethos of the D lab, as I understand it, the design lab at Stanford, which is like, let’s be conscious of like what we’re going for, what’s the outcome we want. And then how do we design to achieve that outcome? And that’s true in like every level, you know, I’ve talked to Dave Evans have been on this podcast, bill Burnett has been on the podcast and they’re all like in, in their own ways. And also Bernie Roth, but it’s, it’s all about this idea of what is the outcome you’re going for. And given that you’re going for that outcome, how do you design your behaviors, your life, your actions to achieve that outcome? How can you be in touch about that? All right. So here’s, here’s my biggest question about ritual. And then we’re going to get into some of the specific riches. How do you manage the discomfort of bringing ritual into a place that ritual doesn’t usually exist?

Peter:

So I’m with you a hundred percent with ritual. When I run leadership programs, I do ritual when I have my own meetings, I often do ritual leadership programs. Ritual is critical, and every piece of the leadership program is designed with a sense of what is the outcome we want, how do we ritualize something to get there, but when I’m with a client or when I’m in a meeting or when other people are like, you know, they’re leaders, or maybe they’re not even leaders in their organization, maybe there’s somewhere, you know, in the middle of the organization, but they want to ritualize things and they want to say, Hey guys, or gals or folks, can we do this thing I want to do? I want to read a poem before we start, right. And everybody rolls their eyes and looks at them and they have, they need tremendous courage to do that. And it could be a beautiful poem and bringing art in, you know, as a ritual, a moment of humanity into a meeting makes tremendous sense, but you’ve got to be the person who’s willing to go, Hey, I want to read a poem before we start something. So help us navigate, you know, how to bring that kind of move, which is no question, a beautiful impact, but how do you bring that in a way that doesn’t make you shrink away and cringe and fear?

Margaret:

So I think we’ve experienced multiple strategies in the class and interviews. We’ve observed different things because every workplace and also every person is different in terms of their level of kind of ability to get people to go along with new and strange things or their power level in certain scenarios or even their personal experience. So some of the strategies we’ve seen be successful, one is to do kind of an incubation small group. And that’s oftentimes our partners in our workshops are the people who definitely want to change the work culture and are okay. Their small group of two to five people kind of playing around and doing that kind of design leg exercise of thinking, Hmm, where could there be a ritual or what would work for our culture? Is it something that should be big and flashy or artistic and dramatic or something much more subtle, and then almost doing improv exercises or just playing around, but kind of being in agreement that they’re going to try something at work.

Margaret:

And that’s, it’s classes are really good for building those little teams. Yeah. But we know not everyone has that luxury of having kind of partners to work with. So one of the other things that we found is a good strategy is to, if you’re an individual to think about what already happens in the start of the meeting at the end of a meeting, when someone is onboarded into your company and think, are there any hooks or kind of things that are already happening that then I could build off of. So it’s not so strange or out of the blue. But trying to introduce things that already have a hook or something.

Kursat:

I think the concept of moments. I think we always pushed students, like, think about these specific moments in learning a workweek, almost be my part. Yeah. Like the routines what’s happening in our place and then look for those opportunity moments. But to answer your, I get what you mean, like that challenge of introducing a ritual. Definitely. I think priming with also help, like maybe before introducing the ritual, they can also slowly introduce this idea of culture building or, yeah, I think almost add a buffer to introduce the concept and Dan Dan introduced three to itself. So priming is important. I also heard like one other strategies to back up with research. I think like I was listening to Jane Dutton, she was talking about high quality interactions, high quality connections. And whenever she does that exercise with her like classes or with our partners, she always backs that up with our research. So that gives me a rational.

Kursat:

So that can be another one. And maybe last one is again from our experiments, like find influencers like who are, or like charismatic people within the team and then let them first maybe recruit that person for your cause for your ritual calls and then let that person lead the session. So then people can follow that person. I think that’s another thing. I think that’s the fact that in that team setting, you have this almost like influencer relationship. Like some people are leaders, some people are followers. So how do you find that natural leader and then first gain their confidence on them?

Peter:

Well, and it’s also possibly one of the ways to become a leader, right. Which is to say, if you’re going to be the one to start that ritual, then that imbues you with a certain leadership quality, if you could pull it off and I want to underscore, and you have this as your principle, number two, that rituals are done with intentionality. And you talked about it here in terms of framing. But I think one of the things that makes this difficult is we’re using, we’re talking about using rituals to shift something in a culture, right? If you’re using a ritual to create or shift something about the workplace culture, it means that chances are currently the workplace culture is not necessarily immediately friendly to the thing you’re about to do. Right. You’re using it to change something. So it will take a risk. And I think maybe it’s particularly useful to be able to say, Hey, look, we are trying to it’s really important that we work really effectively as a team that feels like that’s something really important to us. And, and so it almost feels like, you know, the intention and then saying, and the words and so, right. Like, like, you know, this is what we’re, this is what I’m trying to get to. And so I would really like us to go around the room and say, one thing you appreciate about everybody, you know, like, and then, and, and start off with that ritual, linking it, labeling it and linking it to the thing that you want to change it to your intention and the framing.

Margaret:

Yeah. And I think we’ve seen a lot of companies have already done the work of setting intentions. There’s lots of culture manifestos or value statements. The disconnect is, and what behaviors are actually happening on the ground. So I think that’s one thing that rituals can be a way to say like, Oh, Hey just kind of pointing back to these already established attentions and then linking this new behavior towards those things that should already be at least commonly understood as shared goals.

Peter:

Yeah. And you know, one of the challenges to that is sometimes the values of the intentions themselves are the object of eye-rolling, right? Like, like, because they’re not, you know, like that, like, I think we’re often dealing in, in organizational cultures with, with a sense of hypocrisy or, or a sense of, you know, distaste for this kind of thing. And so it’s, it does, I guess I want to underscore, as I think about this, that I do, I think there’s like all of these are really, really great ideas for, for the, the skill of doing it. And it will require some courage to say, I’m going to step up, I’m going to change the way we do things. I’m going to do it with a ritual that somebody, you might roll your eyes too, but feels important to me. And, and, and like, whether you say that or not, that’s going to be the feeling.

Peter:

Maybe it would help to actually say it. But, but that’s, that’s certainly the feeling. Okay. So let’s talk about some rituals, give us some things to do. And, you know, you’ve got these five areas of change, transition, creativity, innovation, community conflict, and resilience and performance and flow. And I, I think we could just like pick some that you think could be good to share with listeners recognizing that our listeners are our leaders and organizations and they’re, they’re people that work with leaders and organizations and, and what can help them to lead more effectively and lead with intention,

Margaret:

Go for it, go for it. Yeah. We just have our list out.

Peter:

Yeah. That’s great. Pick one. You like, and actually, I would say, I would say pick one, you like that you’ve really seen, have an impact that, you know, like, like all of these are practical, that’s the point of what you’ve written. So something that you kind of really like for the impact.

Margaret:

So I’ll, I’ll start. So one that I really like that does require a little bit of that suspension of skepticism, but really has a wonderful payoff is at the end of every class that I teach, even with very practical and official seeming law students having a pinning ceremony. So having something at the end of our nine weeks together, where I read from a script and then have them choose one of five different pins and just literally pin it on their neighbor to really Mark, this is the end of our class together. We have actually made a whole lot of progress over the past nine weeks. And like it’s almost like a mini graduation ceremony too much. It’s just like a five minute ritual. It has such an emotional payoff for the students. I think there’s something about putting the pin on the other person that pin put on them

Peter:

Do you let them choose who they’re going to put it on or,

Margaret:

Well, they stand next to there. We, I just say, let’s all get in a circle before we do our class evaluations or whatever practical thing is happening next. And I don’t tell them anything. And then I read from this formal script that the design school had written out and laminated. So it is definitely an awkward, it’s not class as usual, right. Especially it almost feels like saying a vow or something kind of special or solemn is happening.

Peter:

And are you saying something specific to that person you’re saying this is a way you’ve shown up, or this is a no you’re, you’re reading that script.

Margaret:

I’m just reading the script of now we have officially kind of ended this design school class. I can’t remember the exact wording, but then they’re part of this community and you can always come back. And this is like the end. It’s kind of the marking of the end of this phase and the com an accomplishment for them. And I think it’s a really important kind of transitional marker. I love that.

Peter:

I love the whole idea of transitional markers, right? Like, because otherwise you miss that moment. So it’s a, it’s a, it’s a matter of creating the moment. You know, I used to be an outward bound instructor and I, and a NOLs instructor. And I went on an outward bound course when I was an instructor without telling people I was an instructor just to, you know, like go on a, on a course and I’d never been on Alabama course. So the, you know, I was kind of leading them and designing them and they were like, you should probably go on with, so, and at the end of the outward bound, there’s a ceremony with a pin. And they and actually in that case, someone in the group chooses you and gives you a pin and says why they’ve chosen you. But it, but there was this real sense among the instructors of this pin. We don’t just get, you kept by this pin, this pin, doesn’t like, just, you know, like, this is the only way you get this pin is by doing this, you know, by N and I’m, you know, now 52. So that must’ve been at least 30 years ago and my kids went through something of mine and they were like, Hey, what’s this? And they found the pin from 30 days ago. Oh, well, let me tell you, I knew exactly what it was. I knew exactly what it meant. So it just reinforces that idea.

Margaret:

Yeah. I think that’s very true. They have much significant that can have.

Kursat:

Also, I think in when you’re in these schools, there’s this vast, you complete the course. Now you’re a designer that kind of a, almost like a, you have a new identity with you. I think that’s also the power of districts, I think.

Peter:

Is there value if you do them too often? Like if every single class pinned you at the end of every single class, then would it just be like, okay, well, can you pick up my pen? Cause I got, you know, go to lunch.

Margaret:

Yeah. I think for that one, it’s really important to have it be kind of a big surprise payoff and kind of this more once, you know, once a year or almost like a real graduation that you get it after four years, a lot of more small rituals that we do do every week to, you know, do warm ups or cool downs or understandings that they don’t have as much emotional payoff or kind of almost bringing you to tears kind of. Right. It’s great. Yeah.

Margaret:

Sorry, Kursat. You had another one.

Kursat:

I have maybe I think right now it’s very popular, but I can still work talking about chicken rounds. That’s another ritual we found in our research. We also do with our teams. I think that gives ’em, there are different variations. Like you can create your own version, but the ideas asking people emotionally, how they are feeling in the moment. And then it’s it’s almost, I think this idea of even when you’re in a practical, like work setting first understand where people are in their personal lives, where they are standing. And then once you make that connection, I think it will be easier for you to work on that practical stuff. I think that’s another ritual I like, and it also translated very well to the virtual work context. I think now I observed lots of teams that are right now doing this kind of taking rounds. So that might be another example.

Peter:

It seems like for that one, intention is very important. Meaning if I say, okay, let’s all check in. And then I start doing email while you’re checking in that that could be like a ritual that has the opposite impact. It shows I’m actually particularly disinterested as opposed to being interested. So like how you show up the respect you give the ritual feels like that’s very important to them.

Kursat:

Yeah, definitely. I think that’s kind of almost a common task and giving your attention to that moment and sharing each other, give us,

Peter:

Let’s see, give us a conflict and resilience ritual.

Margaret:

Definitely. so yeah, this was actually one of the harder ones to get people to talk about. You can understand why, but we think that there’s actually a lot of power for ritual to help deal with fights and conflict in the workplace. So one that we saw actually work with called burn the argument, we actually saw this develop in two different workplaces. So I think there’s something about fire burning that is like a common theme, something about that. So this is literally after there’s been a big or small blow up and maybe other team members have been made aware of it to kind of have this meeting of bringing the folks who were either witnesses or involved in the fight, the the argument together, writing out your side of what happened also what you want to see happen in the future. So just a little bit of kind of reflection, but then the real key is the actual destruction and burning, Oh yeah, you can tear it. Or you can go out to a safe place and burn this stuff together. But the goal is to have this moment of catharsis and to recognize and move on from the argument or from that kind of high tension, rather than letting it stew or trying to paper over it. I think that was a theme that we definitely heard and there could be other kinds of rituals on top of that. Like the processing of some kind of negative blow up that happened at work.

Peter:

Does the blow up is, is the idea that the blowup has been resolved and that’s the point at which you do it or there’s like the blood let’s say you and I have this disagreement and I’m super mad at you, Margaret. And you’re super mad at me. Like at what point do we write this and then burn it?

Margaret:

I think what we saw in practice was it was a day after or after the weekend. So something where someone realizes that this thing is kind of still in the air and needs to be cleared out. Right. I think we saw also developed the other setting was more in kind of a small startup kind of environment. And then you can think about it. If the team is smaller about it happening sooner, I think the first environment we saw was a larger corporation and then the rumors start to spread and you know, that feeling of the atmosphere changing. So the goal was kind of like after giving it a few days, realizing the atmosphere, wasn’t clearing then to use this to say like, we’re moving on.

Peter:

How do you help people use that to move on? I mean, I’m sort of thinking about like, you know, two kids are in a fight and you make them hug to make up. And they’re like, you know, hugging is not going to make me like this kid anymore. Like I’m going to do it because you’re making me do it. But, so how does the, how do you imbue that moment with a significance that has impact as opposed to going through the motions, but still hating the person and speaking badly behind their back

Margaret:

Partly is having something dramatic, like an actual burning flame, whether it’s outside at your company’s barbecue station or something else, but having something a little bit out of the ordinary that is not just a forced conversation in a boardroom, but that you are doing some physical activity. That’s kind of, you’ve never done before at work. So something where there is that physical destruction of course the reflection and the processing and putting your words down on paper should be part of this whole moving on thing to actual production is really key to another key thing is maybe having some neutral party, like maybe if you had a manager of like two people who are neutral to the situation and then let them, I think it’s not an easy task. If you look, frankly, it’s like, you need to prime the both sides and also has someone that they can trust or they can at least say, okay, this person will be neutral. I think that’s another key thing.

Peter:

Give us one for performance and flow.

Margaret:

Well, yeah, this is something our students have been very interested in and oftentimes these are much smaller and less dramatic. So here I’ll talk about like the rock and the touch here for magic powers. Both of these are very small, not a big deal kind of rituals where you just imbues symbolism into an object. So for one of our students that was literally carrying around a rock with him and when he needed to write a paper or finish a problem set, or kind of get something done to put that rock physically next to him and say, once this rock is out, I am going to go into this state of work and I am going to be focused and get this done similar to that is the touch here for special powers. This is one I created and live by kind of building off of the, if you know, the Notre Dame football play like a champion sign that people hit on their way out of the locker room. So I made a little watercolor and put it on my wall and every time I pass it, I just touch it. And I don’t really believe that it gives me magical powers, but it’s just the small little activity to just have a, like a little wake up moment to say like, all right, I’m going to do good work today. So not a big high stakes thing.

Kursat:

I also like the amp up rituals. We collected a couple of them are selectively like before a high state meeting, you almost see, I need to boost your confidence and energy. So you either sing a song, some like power poses and really gives people this kind of, okay, I’m ready to go out and then do my thing, do my performance. I think that’s also works for me. At least I have a couple of them, myself yet.

Peter:

It’s great, you know, sport. There’s a, there’s a long history of, of sport of athletes, you know, who do a series of movements before and, and actually to it, it occurs to me. There’s a way in which that’s really powerful. And, and there’s a way in which I wonder if, if it could also maybe become a crutch, like, like a superstition, like, Oh my God, I didn’t touch the sign. I didn’t go through those movements. I’m screwed. Like, like, yeah, like depending on the ritual and how it is, but but I love that. It also reminds me of the, I can’t remember who it was. I think he was a physicist. I can’t remember his name, but he was famously atheist and, and, and like a skeptic and a scientist. And he had above his door, a horseshoe, and one of his students came to him and said, you know, but you, you have a horseshoe like above your door. I thought you didn’t believe in that stuff. Everything you write about everything you say is you don’t believe in that stuff. And the professor answered, I don’t believe in it, but I understand it works. Whether you believe in it or not.

Margaret:

I think there’s something there. Even if, you know, it’s kind of silly, and this is kind of getting back to overcoming skepticism, even if, you know, it’s silly, you can also feel the difference of actually touching something or doing something or repeating something. So, yeah, I think there’s even a resource when you call it’s a ritual, it increases your prep, right?

Peter:

We have been speaking with Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagen. Their book that they’ve written is rituals for work. You could also say rituals that work or rituals at work, but it’s called rituals for work. 50 ways to create engagement, shared purpose, and a culture that can adapt to change shot. Margaret. It has been such a pleasure talking with you about this. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman leadership podcast.

Kursat and Margaret:

Thanks Peter. Thank you. Thanks so much.

 

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