Symbols and Rituals

Josh Linkner
November 13, 2016

Josh Linkner

Five-time tech entrepreneur, hyper-growth CEO, NY Times bestselling author and venture capitalist.

itualsIn the coastal town of Nanaimo, Canada, police are issuing tickets at an astonishing rate. The tickets are not recognizing the wrongdoing of rule breakers, however. Instead, "Positivity Tickets" are being issued to kids caught in the act of doing something good such as wearing a bike helmet, doing their homework, or crossing the street at a light. The symbols become a source of pride, and help kids believe they have the capacity to do positive things in the community. They also forge a positive relationship with law enforcement, tearing down fear-based stereotypes. Since the idea of positivity tickets began in 2002, more than a million have been issued around the world by progressive police departments like the one in Nanaimo.

Symbols and rituals can play an equally important role in our professional lives. One company I interviewed in my research on innovative corporate culture issues a Failure of the Year award. They hold a big banquet and, among other trophies, issue an award for the team that had a great idea that failed upon launch. While most companies punish setbacks, this one celebrates bold creativity. Think about the message this drives deep into the DNA of the company about taking responsible risk and bringing imagination to the surface. This ritual sends a message that it's okay to push the limits, which fosters an innovative workforce.

Another fast-growing company that wanted to encourage more ideas used symbols to reinforce desired behavior. They put four-feet tall glass jars in a highly visible area of their headquarters, and encouraged team members to put a white marble in the jar each time a new idea comes forward. When ideas take root and are implemented, a red marble is added. Today, a dozen large jars filled mostly with white marbles and sporadic specks of red reinforce the notion that developing great ideas usually comes from numerous bad ones. Employees see and feel this insight several times a day as they walk past the marble-filled jars.

What symbols and rituals exist today in your company? Are there any conflicting messages? If you talk about collaboration but reward individual achievement, the symbolic mismatch will undermine your efforts. Conscious or unintentional, symbols and rituals likely already exist. By taking a purposeful approach, they can be used to power optimal performance.

Think about the behaviors you want from yourself and others and then craft rituals and symbols to reinforce them. Once implemented, they can support the heavy lifting of leadership and drive meaningful results.

Kids in Nanaimo view the police as helpful and supportive as Positivity Tickets fuel the children's desire to do the right thing. Borrow this approach, and drive your own company and career to the next level. No fine required.

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