Feature of the Week

July 7, 2013 11:30 pm

Harvard academics find rituals can be the rite stuff for business

This photo taken on March 17, 2009 shows ozeki©AFP

Sumo champion Kaio casts salt into the ring for luck before his bout

For many, the idea of rituals will conjure up images of voodoo ceremonies or funeral rites. But professors from Harvard Business School believe that adopting rituals in the office can make good business sense.

Why are rituals important on an individual level?

Francesca Gino, associate professor of business administration, says rituals can help managers prepare for high-value tasks, such as an interview or giving a speech or presentation. Rituals help by reducing stress, she says.

How do they know rituals can reduce stress?

The professors put it to the test . “We conducted a series of studies and got people to do tasks that caused anxiety, such as complex mathematical puzzles or singing in public,” says Prof Gino.

Half the subjects – often Harvard MBA students – had to perform the stress-inducing task without performing a ritual, while the second half of the group were taught a ritual to carry out before the task.

The ritual in itself can be nonsensical. For example, Prof Gino devised one ritual in which the participants were asked to draw a picture of how they were feeling, sprinkle salt on the picture and then tear it into five pieces. Although this combines elements of rites performed in different cultures – throwing salt is often seen as a cleansing ritual, for example – the combination is random. “We mixed up different steps from different domains,” she says.

After the event takes place – the singing for example – the participants’ heart rates are measured. Saliva tests can also be used to reveal stress levels.

“We saw lower physical arousal and there were real differences in performance, [among those performing the ritual],” says Prof Gino. “If they performed a ritual they were more confident and performed better. Ritual puts you in a mindset of ‘I am going to do this’.”

Michael Norton, associate professor of business administration at HBS adds a further point. “You don’t have to believe in rituals for them to work,” he says, giving the example of different funeral rites – not all funeral-goers believe in the religious rites performed. But, he adds, “The more you do rituals the more they work.”

How can this be applied to corporations?

“I think it is the realisation that understanding the psychology of people in organisations can make a difference,” says Prof Norton. “Rituals are one way people increase their happiness. If I can persuade you to make better rituals, I can make you happier.” That in turn can increase productivity.

So far these experiments have been carried out in small groups, but now Prof Gino says she is looking at more large-scale projects in companies.

One sector she talks eloquently about is the restaurant business, which is awash with ritual. She cites the example of the sommelier uncorking the bottle of wine and pouring a small amount into a glass for tasting. If the diners opened the bottle of wine themselves, would they be less appreciative of it she asks? And does the added ritual mean that the customer would be willing to pay more for the wine? “One hypothesis we have been working on is that you would give a higher tip,” she says.

Are rituals really just superstition of habits?

Sometimes rituals are related to culture, religion or superstition and sometimes they can be just a habit. But research into sports psychology reveals that wearing a favourite pair of socks or performing a sequence of events before a match can help. Everyone has their own individual rituals, say the professors.

Do the professors have their own rituals?

Yes, says Prof Gino. “I tend to turn up to classes 10 minutes before the beginning and take jacket off,” she says. Then she sets up her slides and class notes before putting her jacket back on and going out of the classroom to talk to students. One of Prof Norton’s rituals will ring a bell with many business travellers. “I am a nervous flyer, so when I fly I make sure to: buy the New Yorker; drink Diet Coke; and sit in the aisle in the front row (whenever possible). I doubt it makes the plane less likely to crash, but the ritual helps calm my nerves.”

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