Ritual Communication: What Do Your Rituals Say About Your Company?

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I’m fascinated by organizations’ “non-verbal” communication, such as what you see when you enter the building, employee events and such, but also those little rituals, the things that are “just what you do”  on a regular basis that can tell you more about the organization than any corporate values statement.

I met with a friend of mine this week who just started a new job that she’s really excited about. There’s the easier commute, challenging new responsibilities and friendly coworkers. And then there’s lunch.

There is a designated lunch hour, and if people stay in the office, they are not allowed to eat at their desks. They have a nice kitchen with a communal dining area. The TV goes on to a game show. When my friend started eating out of her plastic container, a co-worker insisted she use a plate (and there’s a dishwasher). And the staff gets a weekly “surprise” lunch purchased by the company.

Not surprisingly, this is a small, second-generation family company. Now, I don’t know if they affirmatively said “We’re all going to have a real lunch, and it’s going to be together away from the desks to reinforce our ‘family’ oriented culture.” Who knows? This is New York, maybe they had a bug or mouse problem in the office so they don’t want crumbs around the desks. The point is that this lunch ritual is an important, defining part of this company’s culture that communicates something employees value.

I once worked at a company that was obsessed with fingerprints. When you handle a lot of newsprint, as PR people do even in today’s world, there’s a lot of black thumbprints on every light colored surface. This was not to be tolerated. And there was a specific way to wipe these prints off the walls. This certainly brought home the message about being a detail-oriented culture, and the expectation that even when the work gets messy, you always present a smooth appearance to the world.

These little rituals can provide more information about what your organization is really like than any website, press release, or executive profile. What are your company’s rituals? Are they supporting or subverting any stated values? If not, what changes – the rituals or the values?

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