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Corporate culture — Harnessing the power of rites and rituals to enhance cultural transformation

It’s now an established fact, or at least a very widely shared belief, that the strength of a company’s corporate culture is one of its key success factors, a strong “asset” that needs to be maintained, if not reinforced. In an increasingly complex and fast-moving world, in which rules and procedures very often show their limits, a strong and effective culture makes it possible to guide decisions and actions, to confront changes and difficulties encountered or to facilitate the selection and integration of new hires.

Of course, a company’s culture cannot be reduced to a set of values posted on its walls.

It is characterised by a set of behaviours which is seen both in what employees say about the company and, particularly, in the way they conduct themselves and act on a day-to-day basis. In their book Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life (1982), a work that is still quoted after over thirty years, Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy explained that corporate culture was based on an interdependent set of elements. Among these, alongside history or the way the company’s heroes are portrayed and valued, rites and rituals (habits and moments shared by employees on a regular basis) play an essential role, in their opinion – and this is confirmed today (see elsewhere).

There exist in any organisation, and hence in any company, a certain number of rites and rituals driven by the management or by the employees themselves. Rites or rituals of politeness or celebration, of integration or initiation, of passage or sharing, of evaluation or valuation: their apparent function varies. The majority of them contribute to the operation of the organisation (they order and structure the community and life of the company).

The true importance of rites and rituals often resides more in their latent functions and in the values that are revealed or promoted.

Take for example traditional team meetings, a managerial ritual par excellence. For the same manifest function (a monthly review of a team’s activity), very different latent functions and values can be expressed can be expressed: customer culture, quality and/or products, focus on results, camaraderie, listening, boldness, etc. And it depends on a large number of parameters, such as the place where the meeting is held and how each participant is sitting (round a desk, in the cafeteria, in a neutral space, etc.), the staging of the meeting, the content of topics discussed, the way they are discussed.

Consequently, it is easy to imagine the potential power of rites and rituals in shaping and developing a corporate culture, a power that is all the greater because they concern a large number of potential levers for engagement at the same time (purpose and culture, self-improvement, recognition, the link between individual performance and collective performance, relations with one’s manager, etc.), they are based on the active participation of as many people as possible, and they make it possible to bring the company and its behaviours to life concretely.

This was the option taken by Capgemini with its Business Rituals, for which we were fortunate to be able to assist in the rollout. The starting-point was an observation of the difficulty of “aligning” 200,000 employees spread over 40 countries over key behaviours (to simplify: customer orientation, discipline and collaboration). This resulted in a certain number of business-oriented rituals with relatively evocative names (Pit Stop, Power Launch, Cap 360), successfully rolled out around the world. Beyond the expected deliverables, these collective and symbolic moments, heavily scripted, really do constitute managerial innovations which make it possible to physically root the target behaviours in the employees’ day-to-day lives (to explore this topic further, see the excellent articles by Pierre Hessler on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/pierre-hessler-14958914/detail/recent-activity/posts/).

But transforming a company’s rites and rituals should not be taken lightly, even if it is possible to envisage a “test and learn” approach.

Indeed:

  • discontinuing or transforming certain rituals can throw some employees off-balance, particularly, particularly if their latent function is difficult to evaluate;
  • creating new rituals can fall flat, if they don’t appear to be useful (manifest function), if they create too violent a culture gap between the current culture and the desired culture (latent function), or if those responsible for running them, managers as a general rule, have not bought into them and feel uneasy running them.

The question deserves a fully structured approach.

From the analysis of a company’s rites and rituals – their manifest and latent functions, what they reveal of the company’s culture and behaviours, etc. – through to being tested and implemented, including the design of new rituals through co-creation with key stakeholders, the various steps must be respected in order to make rituals into genuine drivers of cultural change.

Meet Stanislas Haquet, Associate director at Angie Engage