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Ceremonies, Rituals and Work



Over the weekend, I had an email conversation with a friend about this post on fear of change at the fork in the road. My friend is supporting a change process where the focus has largely been on the nuts and bolts of the change--training, materials to support new products and services, etc.

What's been missing from the process is the real acceptance of the EMOTIONS that come with change--specifically feelings of fear and loss. There hasn't been a venue for acknowledging and dealing with those feelings and they are forming an invisible barrier of resistance to all of the change efforts. 

I told my friend that I've begun to believe that we need more ceremony and ritual in our work life if we're going to cope with so much of what comes our way. In our rush to be "productive," make profits or "do good" in the world, we lose sight of the fact that we're talking about people here. And when you're talking about people, then you are inevitably talking about emotions. It's one of the hallmarks of our humanity, yet when it comes to work, we're supposed to check our feelings at the door. 

As a species, we've developed rituals and ceremonies to mark major transitions in our lives--the passage from one state to the next. We have rituals for expressing gratitude, for building community and for connecting to spirit. We have ceremonies to celebrate and ceremonies to mourn. Across cultures and throughout history, these ceremonies have been deep, rich and meaningful, meant to provide catharsis and opportunities for closeness to one another as human beings. 

But when it comes to our work lives, our rituals and ceremonies are weak shadows of what they could be. Teambuilding exercises and "onboarding" are not what I have in mind here. I'm talking about ceremonies that grab us in our guts and invite us to really feel that we are alive. 

It seems to me that part of what keeps us brittle at work, less able to deal with the stresses and emotional ups and downs of our experience is in part a failure of ceremony. 

My friend told me that he'd once heard Leo Buscaglia talking about a time when his father had been laid off. Buscaglia's mother cooked up a big Italian dinner and invited the family to celebrate and support the father--a sort of wake for the lost job. 

I don't expect any company to be offering this sort of support soon, but isn't this something that we as co-workers could do for someone on our own? 

I recognize that many of us can turn to people in our personal lives for this kind of support, but there's still something in me that believes we'd all be better off if the places where we spend at least a 1/3 of our time were also more thoughtful about the power of real ceremony and ritual. It's why I'm a big believer in things like circle practice and art of hosting techniques, which build on our human ways of celebrating, connecting and talking about what's most important. These are the kind of person-centered practices that acknowledge our humanity first, before getting down to business. 


Where do you see and feel a need for more ceremony and ritual at work? How can we bring more of our humanity into the work that we do? 


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You're so right - we have so many ceremonies and rituals in our personal lives, but very few at work.

Unfortunately, I believe that governments do an especially terrible job at acknowledging their employees' emotions and humanity. Administrators are so focused on optics and politics and being accountable to taxpayers, that they forget they're dealing with emotional human beings.

Natalie, as someone who has done a lot of work with government, I definitely agree with your insight. I find that it's partially a result of a huge culture of fear that we're living in right now. It's really toxic.

At the same time, I have to believe that we as individuals have an ability to come together with our co-workers and do more to create these kinds of rich rituals and ceremonies. We would have to be more intentional about having the conversations, but I think that there's still a lot of space for this kind of thing to take place if we were to push it.

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