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Use rituals to build resilience and improve performance

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How do rituals reduce anxiety and improve performance?

Sandra admits she’s always been a worrier but when she started a new job as a financial manager, her anxiety steadily began to build.

The responsibility of running, developing and being accountable for the results of her large team initially motivated her, as she was excited by the challenge. 

However, slowly the pressure of learning her role and her new responsibilities caused her natural worry to spiral out of control and impact on her performance. 

What is interesting is that until her latest role Sandra reported that she had always thought her worry and concern was the key to her success, as she often continued to mull over her work in her off hours. Often, “a solution would pop to mind when I was not at work,” she said.

And there is no doubt that certain roles and occupations, such as: accounting, engineering and computer science, tend to be a better fit for people with a detail-focused mind-set who are natural worriers or are slightly pessimistic, but what can we do when our strengths start working against us?  

What techniques are there for people like Sandra who find their lack of resilience (worry and concern) stop them performing at the level they used to?

This was the focus of new research published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes which examined the power of ritual to build resilience, reduce anxiety and worry, to improve performance.

Using ritual to reduce performance anxiety is not new, many successful sports and business leaders use rituals, such as wearing certain items of clothing or going through certain behavioural processes to improve their performance but do they work?

Alison Woods Brooks from Harvard Business School, used 2 research studies with 250 participants to unpack if rituals worked and what made them effective.

In the first research study, participants had to cope with the pressure of having to sing a song to a stranger. The participants were assigned to a ritual or non-ritual group. In the ritual group participants had one minute before performing a song to complete this ritual: 

Draw a picture of how you are feeling right now. Sprinkle salt on your drawing. Count up to five out loud. Crinkle up your paper. Throw your paper in the trash.

The results showed that the ritual group had lower heart rates and reported less anxiety than the group that did nothing. Importantly, the ritual group also performed better in terms of pitch volume and note duration.

The second research study examined how effective it was using a ritual in an anxiety-provoking situation (a maths test). Again, participants were assigned to a ritual or non-ritual group but this time the researchers told some of them that the tasks were “fun maths puzzles”, while telling others it was “a very difficult IQ test”.  

The results showed that the group who thought it was “a very difficult IQ test” and used a ritual showed improved performance, suggesting that the ritual was able to reduce anxiety and improve performance.

But how do rituals reduce anxiety and improve performance?

The researchers suggest that for rituals to work they had to be fixed routines with symbolic significance.  

Their research showed that when participants were asked to write down a fixed sequence of numbers it also worked at improving performance. However, when they were told they were just random behaviours it did not work, confirming that symbolic significance is an important component of the effect. 

The key takeaway is that to reduce anxiety and improve performance you have to believe in the ritual and the symbolism of the ritual.

The EBW View

There is no doubt that anxiety and worry can help you to make you more alert, more motivated and gain a competitive edge. Conversely, too much anxiety or stress can cause performance anxiety, which hurts your health and does not allow you to perform at your optimal level.

Brooks’s research provides a clear blueprint on how to develop rituals to reduce anxiety and worry in the workplace.

The research suggests you need three key elements to develop a successful ritual to reduce anxiety and improve performance. (1) a pre-defined sequence characterized by rigidity, formality and repetition that is (2) embedded in a larger system of symbolic meaning and (3) lacking direct instrumental purpose. 

E.g. I pound my feet strongly on the ground several times, I take several deep breaths and I "shake" my body to remove any negative energies.  I do this often before going to work, going into meetings and at the front door before entering my house after a long day.

However, whilst this research provides a blueprint for developing rituals, it is worth noting a ritual is not a universal remedy for all problems. Professional sportsmen do not only perform rituals to secure favourable outcomes, but they also train every day. 

Finding a balance between practical and ritual action can help guard against compulsive ritualization. Rituals are likely to be most useful when you have done everything you could but still feel anxious, worried and concerned. 

Whilst all organisations 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, recognise that rituals, used appropriately, can be the emotional and behavioural levers for improving individual’s and organisation’s performance. 

Brooks, Alison Wood, Julianna Schroeder, Jane Risen, Francesca Gino, Adam D. Galinsky, Michael I. Norton, and Maurice Schweitzer. "Don't Stop Believing: Rituals Improve Performance by Decreasing Anxiety." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 137 (November 2016): 71–85

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