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Workplace Superstitions, Rituals and Habits

April 16, 2018

 

Albie’s annual visit to the tax accountant is usually enjoyable enough but this year, discovering how superstitious accountants can be, made it amusing as well. When Albie routinely pulled out this year’s receipts and statements in a red file folder there was an audible gasp in the room. As the file was handed over there was even a noticeable reluctance to handle it. Albie was informed that the use of red file folders was frowned upon in the accountant’s office as it was unlucky given the in the red or losing money connotation that came with it.

 

Some workplaces are incredibly superstitious. In the work world of the performing arts one never wishes anyone good luck, tradition has it that would bring very bad luck. The ubiquitous break a leg with its unknown origins (there are numerous conflicting versions) dominates those workplaces.

 

The workplaces of professional athletes are a breeding ground for superstitions and rituals to bring about good fortune on the playing field and ward off injury. Everything from elaborate pre-game quasi ceremonial ways athletes dress and prepare for competition to what, how and where they eat, to the famous never ever walk on the lines if you play baseball or tennis. But what about everyday workplaces?

 

A colleague, upon returning from a business trip to Asia, adopted the very common practice of adorning cubicles, desks and workstations with either a lucky charm, a laughing Buddha or a Feng Shui inspired shoot of lucky bamboo.  They mused that everybody can benefit from a bit of good luck that comes from such items or from rituals.

 

Rituals are everywhere in contemporary workplaces. Some stem from tradition or long held beliefs, others are modern inventions. One of my very first supervisors religiously cleared his desk at the end of every day leaving one solitary piece of paper in the middle of the desk with three priorities for the next day. A New Brunswick farm equipment manufacturer’s ritual is to begin each staff meeting with a happy customer story from anyone around the table. That type of ritual serves to strengthen the company’s customer culture and used to be an individual habit of the owner which is now an organizational habit. It has become (without an edict or formal policy) replicated in all get togethers and meetings throughout the business. Rituals become habits which in turn become traditions.

 

New York Times reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg in his exquisitely researched book the Power of Habit reminds us that individual rituals or habits often become organizational routines.  A manager who arrives in her office’s kitchen does what she always does at home: before putting anything in the fridge she surveys (and sniffs) the fridge’s contents and discards anything that warrants being thrown out. For her it was simply a personal ritual. Imagine her delight when she later found out that the employer has a policy directive that requires such weekly steps as part of keeping a healthy and safe work environment.

 

Many workplaces I’ve visited recently collect smartphones in a basket at meetings and some have the ceremonial closing of the laptop covers before the start of their get togethers. It’s becoming more and more common for meetings to begin with what one senior manager coined a moment to gather ourselves where those assembled who have often rushed from another engagement in their busy work lives are compelled to simply sit quietly for less than a minute to reset and refocus.

 

Rituals are commonplace as a means of recognizing people’s contributions, to welcome new employees and to say goodbye as people leave. One organization I know has a rotating chair on their management team so when one chairperson’s turn is up they pass a ceremonial banana (they don’t use a gavel) to the incoming chair. It turns a dry perfunctory task into a joy filled moment that is now legendary. Imagine what your opening or closing remarks would be if it involved a ceremonial banana!

 

Rituals around food and celebration can serve to energize and create some fun at work. Other rituals have clear productivity implications while some galvanize values and beliefs for the good of employers, employees and customers.

 

I’m not sure about the place superstition has at work however there is probably something to the words of actor Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott character on the long running TV show The Office when he famously said, “I’m not superstitious, but I am a little sticious.”

 

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