Western researcher publishes work on building rituals and purpose in an evolving workplace

Contact: Stacey Anderson

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The connection that people feel when they have a shared experience is undeniable. COVID-19 has disrupted everything from live music, to athletics, to schooling and more. Dr. Doug Lepisto, Western Michigan University associate professor of management and co-director of the Center for Principled Leadership and Business Strategy, researches how shared work rituals can inspire and give meaningfulness and purpose to employees and organizations. And anyone who has been on a series of Zoom calls knows that these rituals have been dramatically impacted by the remote work environment during the past 18 months.

Lepisto’s research will be published in the Academy of Management Journal, the premiere publication in the field of management. He joins just a handful of faculty members from Western, and the Mid-American Conference in general, to publish a single-author paper in the journal over the last 30 years.

His research focuses on how rituals can build a sense of purpose among employees and how that purpose translates to a healthy culture and commitment to work.

“Finding purpose and meaning in work improves employee well-being, and it drives organizational performance and retention in a competitive environment,” says Lepisto. “When you begin seeing the world through situations and gatherings—and the emotions they create—it looks very different, and you begin to see new opportunities.”

Lepisto predicts offices will become much more social and interactive. “People will choose to come into the office—and need a reason to since they now realize they can work effectively remotely. Using office time to engage in interaction rituals and bond people together will become just one of those reasons to come into the office. Virtual work is here to stay; there is no denying that. Still, the most moving and meaningful moments in life are when we are together. Organizations who want to create these kinds of impactful, shared experiences will use the office more to do that than before.”

Lepisto’s research took him into an athletic footwear and apparel company, where a large-scale and unique fitness movement at the organization bonded employees and reflected core values.

What is essential for a ritual to be more than an event and to truly connect employees in a sense of shared purpose?

“Effective interaction ritual creates shared emotion,” says Lepisto. “When employees have an opportunity to talk and share about the moments created in an interaction ritual, such as the fitness program at FitCo (pseudonym), they recognize their emotion as not just their own, but as bigger than themselves. When leaders speak about these shared feelings of meaningfulness, they reinforce these emotions and provide a common language for the organization.”

According to Lepisto’s work, these rituals can arise in different ways, but there is some benefit to starting with the ritual first rather than a vision statement. He notes that allowing rituals to develop organically can lead to greater employee ownership. “When leaders create a purpose statement, without a corresponding ritual already in place, their actions can be seen as opportunistic, inauthentic and forced.”

Lepisto’s work suggests:

  • There are several pathways to create a sense of higher purpose—more than conventional wisdom dictates.
  • Higher purpose might be more organic and less deliberate than we think.
  • The process of building a purpose for an organization through a natural evolution may be more effective, though additional research needs to be done to examine this.

Key obstacles to having rituals generate a sense of deep, shared purpose are:

  • Not enough people participating in the ritual.
  • People not feeling included in the ritual.
  • Emotional display norms within an organization that prevent people from sharing their emotions.

It’s the shared emotion on a large scale that really gives rituals their power in the workplace. Whether it’s Medtronic’s practice of bringing patients with their medical implants into the organization to discuss how these devices preserve quality of life, or Home Depot employees volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, rituals can shape the way employees feel about their organizations, their work and themselves.

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