You see, in life, lots of people know what to do, but few people actually do what they know. Knowing is not enough! You must take action.” — Tony Robbins

We write a lot about workforce performance, personal development, improvement and winning behaviours here at Sparta, but a topic I wanted to dig into today is one we rarely touch on – the science behind changing behaviour, building habits and the use of rituals.

Before we start, let’s get some definitions on paper:

  • Behaviour: “the way in which one acts.”
  • Habits: “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”
  • Ritual: “series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.”

Today I want to explore the idea that increased performance and success at work is the result of small, seemingly inconsequential rituals that give rise to our habits and thus shape our behaviors and performance.

I will argue that successful high-performers are acutely aware of the rituals they perform on a daily basis, and performers who aren’t reaching their own potential could benefit greatly from focusing on adopting new rituals to shape their habits and behaviours.

Before we dig into rituals, let’s start with behaviour-change more generally.

Part 1 – Why is changing behaviour so difficult?

All performance improvement (whether financial or cultural) will ultimately be driven by behaviour change. Changing behaviour is hard, and perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing business leaders today.

Why? Because our brains are literally hardwired to resist change.

Much of what we do on a daily basis happens without thinking—driving a car, brushing our teeth, browsing the supermarket aisle, running a meeting. Very few people have to decide consciously which leg to put into their trousers first. These simple behaviours have been shaped repeatedly by training and experience and are now habitual.” (Langley Group)

The part of our brain that executes on these habits is called the Limbic structure, which can function with very little energy or effort. This is why brushing our teeth, booking a dentist appointment or running a basic sales meeting can happen on “autopilot”.

However, the part of the brain tasked with decision-making and tackling change is called the prefrontal cortex, and literally takes more effort and energy to function. This is the science behind why changing habits and behaviour is so difficult – it literally is harder on a physiological level!

“Our brains are extremely effective at tenaciously maintaining the status quo” (Langley Group)

Brain Habits

Part 2: How can rituals be used to influence behaviour?

However, research suggests that rituals are a powerful mechanism to “help” the brain adapt and embrace change. Rituals are small sets of actions that are performed according to a pre-set “order”.

“Rituals are habits that are part of our day-to-day activities that lead to desired outcomes” (Melissa Gratias – PhD in industrial and organizational psychology)

We all understand the basic rituals: weddings, brushing our teeth, sending birthday cards, saying “good morning” in the morning, but have you considered rituals which are “less obvious”?

Examples of less-obvious, yet powerful rituals:

  • Listening to a specific song before bed
  • High-fiving a colleague when they close a great deal
  • Taking 5 minutes of “quiet” before an important meeting to prepare
  • Always taking notes during a meeting
  • Picking up a takeaway cup of coffee on your walk to work

“Sociologists recognize that one of the oldest and most powerful collective change-management techniques is ritual.” (Rewire)

Here’s a simple (and unfortunately probably very relatable) example of how rituals are powerful in influencing our behaviour.

All of us would love to be at the gym every morning at 6am before work, however most of us fail at this fairly simple task. Why? Because our brain is hardwired to take the “easy way out” and sleep until 7am, which may be our standard wake-up-time.

A simple “ritual” to get us to the gym every morning could be:

  1. Lay our workout clothes out the night before
  2. Place a glass of water next to the bed
  3. Set an alarm at 5am
  4. Place the phone in another room forcing us to go up

“Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest sportsperson of all time, wore the same North Carolina shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls shorts in every game” (Scientific American).

Why? The shorts have NOTHING to do with his basketball? You might even call it ridiculous and superstitious?

However, there is now significant research pointing to how powerful rituals are on performance given they reduce anxiety and boost confidence which helps people perform at a high level.

The New Zealand All Blacks, the national rugby team, perform the “Haka”, a traditional tribal Maori dance before each game.

“Neuroscientific research shows that rituals like the Haka trigger feelings of connectivity, timelessness, and meaning, which stimulate mental flow states. These, in turn, reduce anxiety and increase energy and focus.” (Harvard Business Review)

Part 3 – How I can I make use of rituals at work to improve my or my team’s performance?

The interesting thing is: the best people inside your organisation have already identified and built winning rituals, routines, habits and behaviours. That’s why they are high performers. They’ve stumbled upon the “winning” rituals, habits, routines and behaviours that drive their good performance.

“All organizations have rituals — from the mundane everyday routines (coffee breaks, tea time) to major, less frequent events like annual meetings and retirement parties. Smart leaders, however, recognize that rituals like these and others are levers for improving the organization’s performance and they take the creation and nurturing of rituals very seriously.” (Harvard Business Review)

The problem with most workplaces is, we focus on the outcomes, not the rituals that create the conditions to achieve our outcomes.

If we return to the aforementioned gym example – workplaces focus on “how many times did you go to the gym this week?”. If we looked at a typical workplace or organization, 10-20% of the organisation who regularly go to the gym are handsomely rewarded, and the rest are left unrewarded, don’t get to the gym often enough and most importantly – aren’t doing anything to help it given they haven’t stumbled upon the necessary rituals.

Leaders can benefit greatly from teaching their staff about the routines they could adopt. They aren’t setting their alarm earlier and they aren’t lying their workout clothes out the night before. They are destined to fail.

Discuss this with your high performers. Find out what little rituals they have each day, before important meetings and when they are feeling stressed. The answers will be there!

This is so important because this is why all workplaces struggle to drive change-management initiatives.

“Mount Eliza Business School found that over 70% of change initiatives fail because of people resistance – not because they weren’t good business ideas, driven by sound analysis, systems and facts.” (Langley Group)

Summary

Rituals are powerful because they “shape the way our brains are feeling, thinking and acting”. This makes it easier for our brains to tackle more complex decisions and embrace change.

They act as triggers to help us adopt a new routine, which help our brain build new habits, and turn new routines into auto-pilot behaviours.

Successful sportspeople and businesspeople embrace rituals openly and understand the science of behaviour-change. If you’re a business leader in 2017, you need to understand the science of behaviour, identify the “winning rituals” that already exist inside your organisation and help everyone on your team to adopt them to drive winning behaviours and ultimately great performance.

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James Pember
CEO Sparta, gamification & performance management technology for the world's biggest and most-loved enterprise brands.Passionate about performance. Passionate about helping companies drive change. Love the intersection of behaviour, business, psychology and technology. One-time marathon finisher (probably won't try again).