How Group Rituals Enhance Meaning in Work - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #821

How Group Rituals Enhance Meaning in Work

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Buster Keaton with his writing staff, 1923 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Buster Keaton with his writing staff, 1923 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Performing group rituals in the workplace can make tasks and work more meaningful for employees, according to research built on a series of diverse experiments. This empirical research also highlights the positive impact on rituals on employee behaviour and attitudes towards others.


Companies recognize today that helping employees find meaning and purpose in their work will maximize employee satisfaction, motivation, engagement, and performance. The challenge for leaders is how to increase meaning at work.

A team of researchers from five leading U.S. business schools (Virginia Darden, UNC Kenan-Flagler, Berkeley Haas, Chicago Booth, and Harvard) make the case that group rituals in the workplace can render specific tasks and work in general more meaningful. They also suggest that such meaningfulness leads to better “organizational citizenship behaviours”—that is, employee behaviours in which they seek to support and help others.

The first step in the research was developing the attributes or features of group rituals—which needed to be clearly differentiated from group norms. Their efforts led to identifying the following three key features of group rituals:

  1. Physical actions – words and/or acts that are repeatedly and rigidly performed.
  • Psychological import – the psychological meaning that participants draw from the group activity.
  • Communality – whether participants feel that the activity is intimately shared with others.

Through a series of five studies, the researchers then demonstrated the impact of group rituals with these features on meaningfulness of tasks, meaningfulness of work, and organizational citizenship behaviours.

For example, in one experiment, participants wrote about a group activity that engaged in at work, and then answered questions about:

  • The meaningfulness of their job
  • Their organizational citizen behaviour (e.g., did they tend to help others?)
  • Whether the group activity they wrote about was ritualistic (based on the researcher’s definition, which was given to the participants)
  • The meaningfulness of the group activity

The researchers found that the more participants believed the group activity was ritualistic (based on the three features being present), the more meaningful they found the activity and their job, and the more likely they were to engage in organizational citizenship behaviours.

Further experiments reveals that all three elements of rituals needed to be present for a ritual activity to have a positive effect on work meaningfulness and citizenship behaviours.

In one empirical study, for example, participants read different scenarios describing an employee performing a group ritual followed by a group task. In three of the scenarios, the ritual activity incorporated just one of the three features; the ritual in a fourth scenario incorporated all three features. A majority of participants believed the fourth scenario would more likely inspire the employee to find the ritual meaningful, find his or her work meaningful, and engage in organizational citizenship behaviours. In another study, participants divided into groups of three performed a ritual activity incorporating physical and psychological elements (e.g., tapping shoulders, crinkling paper) before completing a group task (brainstorming the maximum uses of a die). In some groups, participants faced each other during the ritual, thus incorporating the communality feature. In other groups, participants faced away from each other. A subsequent survey of the participants found that those who had faced each other during the ritual found both the ritual and the subsequent group task more meaningful and—relating to organizational citizenship—were more inclined to like and to feel close to the other group members.


This experimental research is valuable to leaders in three important ways:


  • It offers a carefully developed definition that identifies the three key features of successful rituals (physical activity, psychological import, and communality). The presence of these three features may explain why some interventions (e.g., team-building exercises) may not have the desired impact: it is possible these interventions did not draw on all three features.
  • It shows that rituals are a simple yet effective tool for enhancing meaning at work. Some organizational efforts to imbue meaning into work tasks include changing the tasks; however, this is not always possible. This research shows a path for adding meaningfulness to a task without changing the task (a theory called “meaning transfer” in which the meaningfulness of a ritual before the task is transferred to the task).
  • It reveals the positive downstream consequences of rituals and meaningfulness on employee behaviours that impact the group.


Group rituals are an integral part of many activities, including sports and religion. Rituals are increasing in the workplace and with good reason. The positive impact and influence of group rituals on outcomes as diverse as meaning at work, employee motivation and group dynamics cannot be overlooked.



Work group rituals enhance the meaning of work. Tami Kim, Ovul Sezer, Juliana Schroeder, Jane Risen, Francesca Gino, Michael I. Norton. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. (July 2021).



Further Relevant Resources:
Tami Kim’s profile at University of Virginia Darden School of Business


Ovul Sezer’s profile at University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School


Juliana Schroeder’s profile at University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business


Jane Risen’s profile at University of Chicago Booth School of Business


Francesca Gino’s profile at Harvard Business School


Michael I. Norton’s profile at Harvard Business School

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Idea conceived

July 13, 2021

Idea posted

Jun 2022
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