What is the glue that makes some teams outperform others? In addition to known factors such as technical competence, team purpose and objectives, and effective communication, successful teams have rituals. A ritual, in its most basic form, is an honored practice that is part of a community’s culture. From singing the national anthem at the start of a major sporting event, to the recitation of a pledge by students at the start of a school day, these rituals are signals of a cultural commitment that joins people together.
A major focus in my work is helping teams achieve higher levels of performance. Recently I’ve had the chance to support both a Fortune 100 executive team and a high school women’s lacrosse team do just that. The business team had previously operated as independent units but was now banded together under a new executive with a vision of an integrated business. This required the leaders to operate more cohesively despite their history of working in silos. The lacrosse team comprised athletes competing as a unit while simultaneously working through the highly competitive college recruiting process, which is extremely stressful as individuals can succumb to making easy mistakes or feel compelled to outshine the other players. Both reactions weaken team performance.
The similarities between the teams were striking. Both were made up of individuals who had deep knowledge and skill and a commitment to elevating their personal performance (or that of their unit). Both teams were also known for poor communication and inconsistent performance when it came to collaboration. And now, both teams were led by individuals that demanded they work together for the sake of their shared performance. Our focus started with deepening relationships, clarifying purpose and vision, and improving team communication and coordination. With this foundation in place, these teams were ready to create meaningful and impactful rituals – the stuff that helps elevate and sustain teamwork over the long run.
The lacrosse players collectively formulated a powerful ritual that would be replayed before every game and at some practices. The ritual was self-led (sometimes including the coach and most times not) and involved warming up in ways that encouraged boldness, connectivity, and freedom. Performed in a circle and with music, they playfully urged teammates to improvise in ways that were bold, freeform, and innovative while verbally emboldening each member’s performance. A part of their vision during the recruiting process was to play freely with the sense of boldness and deep coordination of a championship team as this would raise their game and recruiting opportunities. To an observer, the ritual might have appeared disorderly and trivial, but for the players it was quite the opposite. This ritual signified high teaming and commitment, and gave each individual the emotional and mental readiness to compete. Over time, this ritual became part of the team’s culture, bringing a sense of togetherness, joy, and shared commitment.
Similarly for the business team, its ritual was focused on their work and the level of leadership required for their future. These leaders co-created a monthly gathering to spend time as business and industry leaders talking openly about their insights, concerns and challenges in ways that were free of managerial evaluation and generative in sourcing ideas, collaboration and inspiration. The monthly agenda was formed through dialogue that identified provocative issues, ideas and unresolved problems facing the business. It didn’t matter if the topics “felt good.” It mattered that they were coming together to talk openly and thoughtfully about the future. As the team engaged on these topics, it fostered new thinking, shared leadership and satisfaction.
Both teams’ rituals involved connecting in a casual environment free of hierarchy. The rituals encouraged freedom of expression – in thought and action. These rituals were small reminders of the commitment that they were making to one another, to their work, and the possibility that existed specifically because they were not operating alone.
As leaders, part of our work is to establish the conditions for success through the ritualistic ways we have our teams engage. Consider: what is the ritual that will best serve your team?