Why you need 'rites of passage' to drive change

Most people have come to the conclusion that change isn’t going away. If you’re a Gen Xer or older, you’ll remember the days when restructures and big shifts in business happened every five years or so. The Boomers and Veterans might even still remember the glory days of the 10-year restructure cycle.

But those days are long gone.

Rapid. Perpetual. Unrelenting. That’s how change is in business now. The increasingly important charter for the modern workplace leader is to build a team that is agile and resilient, not simply one that plans and executes well.  The truth is, by the time you’ve finished reading this newsletter there’s quite possibly been another change—that will present another challenge—which will require a different approach. Phew! It’s exhausting.

In working with big and small organisations over the past decade, I’ve witnessed teams handle this new rapid-change environment exceptionally well…and others who’ve imploded under the weight of uncertainty and pressure. Sometimes those teams have existed only a few metres away from each other. So what’s the difference between the good’uns and the not-so-good’uns? While there may be many variables, my observations suggest one specific thing tends to bring big results: a rite of passage.

Steeped in cultural evidence

Ancient tribes throughout the world formed their cultures on clearly established signs, symbols, language, behaviours and artefacts. They also understood the power of a rite of passage: a ceremony or significant act that signals  a particular point in time, that an identity has changed. Think in terms of boy becomes man or girl becomes woman. Even in our current western cultures, we have things like graduation and marriage that announce a change of identity.

Typically in business, however, we hear leaders espousing rhetoric of the need to change—even the urgency of change—yet immediately after the announcement, the troops march back to the office  and gravitate back to their status quo behaviours, at their status quo desk, drinking their status quo instant coffee.

Decisions are made emotionally

For a long time, the marketing world has known the power of emotions in buying. C’mon, let’s be honest; who’s ever bought something they didn’t need? Yep, that’s right: all of us. Rationally, the purchase made no sense, but dammit! I’m buying it anyways. ‘Cos I can.

Far too often, organisations ask people to change based on a truckload of rational evidence. It makes sense. Yet in many cases—no matter how much data you put before them—people resist the change. Emotionally, they haven’t bought, and if you don’t have emotions on board, then behaviours are unlikely to follow.

Grant permission for people to change

The crucial role of a rite of passage for any culture is:

a)     it marks the significance through a memorable event, and

b)     it grants permission for change.

Let’s look at the first one. It makes sense to give your people something to remember. A memorable event is something that can be talked about for years. Unsurprisingly, the most memorable events aren’t the lavish ones, but rather the meaningful, care-filled ones.

But the second one, this permission part…Wow. It’s the special sauce.

People need permission at two levels.

Firstly, they need to give permission to themselves to change. Ultimately, big change requires leaving the past behind to work towards a new future. It means reshaping your identity, and that’s not easy.

The second level of permission is to grant each other the permission to change. That it’ll be OK to act differently and not feel as though we are breaking ranks with our colleagues by shifting our behaviours. A well-served rite of passage does both these things beautifully.

So if you’re a leader taking your team through a change environment, think innovatively about how you could employ a rite of passage. Perhaps it’s reconfiguring the office to match a certain theme while you’ve got your team away at a strategy session. When they walk in the next day, it not only feels different, it looks different…heck, I’ve even had clients make it smell different.

Could you have a small but powerful ceremony that celebrates a project that has personified the future direction you want your team to take? Really, your limitation for creating a rite of passage is only your imagination. Engineer the chance for people to change their identity, and their behaviours will follow.