Many high performing teams have something in common that is rarely discussed: Rituals and inside jokes.
Recently, ESPN released a 30-for-30 documentary called, “The Bullies of Baltimore” about the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl XXXV winning team. I was amazed by how many rituals and inside jokes that team had, which I believe helped them to win a championship.
If you are football fan, you may recall that the 2000 Ravens were known for their defense. While their defense was historically dominant featuring all-stars like Ray Lewis and Rod Woodson, their offense was lackluster. In fact, the team went five weeks that season without scoring a touchdown. When their head coach, Brian Billick, was asked about the team making the playoffs, he didn’t want to take any chances; he banned use of the word “playoffs” among the team and subjected anyone who spoke the word to a fine.
In response, the whole city started referring to the “playoffs” using another name– “Festivus,” which was a reference to the popular 1990s sitcom Seinfeld. Players and coaches started using the word judiciously and it became a running joke both inside the team and with the media and fans. Some fans even had t-shirts made referring to “Festivus”.
The story of the 2000 Super Bowl winning Ravens for the 30-for-30 documentary series is told through a panel discussion including both players and coaches. In addition to the “Festivus” inside joke, there were several others, like the back and forth pranks between Shannon Sharpe and Tony Siragusa and even the joke that Brian Billick hated to call plays to run the football and the team pulled him aside to beg him to call more running plays, which energized the Ravens struggling offense.
I remember the first supervisor I had when I was an intern, who fostered an incredible work environment through inside jokes. He almost had his own language that he shared with everyone in the office that only we understood. For example, he would refer to things being extreme using the term “Squared” like saying, “That person was intense…squared.”
It was one of those things where, “You had to be there,” for it to be funny, but that is kind of the point. Teams come together when they are in an environment that creates such an atmosphere to bring people together. Human experiences on a team are shaped by shared experiences, especially unique shared experiences. In leadership, that is the power of an effective off-site meeting, giving a team a memorable shared experience outside of the office that only they can refer to.
The best part of this common language was that everyone was included, which helped to bring the team together, not create cliques or factions. If the group is creating inside jokes to marginalize a member of the team, that is often bullying, not bonding.
Why Inside Jokes Work
These inside jokes serve a dual purpose. First, they help to build team identity and belonging by creating a sense of shared experience and camaraderie. When team members share a common language or joke, they feel like they are part of a tight-knit community, which can help to boost morale and foster a positive work environment.
Second, inside jokes can be incredibly motivating for team members. When your team is working towards a common goal, having a fun inside joke to celebrate each success can help to create a sense of momentum and excitement. Team members will feel more invested in their work when they feel like they are part of something larger than themselves.
Leaders have the power to help instill the camaraderie of many successful teams. Leaders can use tools like unique language, mantras, or stories to create a team dynamic. Even more powerful, leaders can create the space and opportunities for team members to get together and create those inside jokes themselves. Leaders who want to micromanage or hear back on interactions lose out on many opportunities for the team to share something unique together.
From an anthropological perspective, rituals and routines are a cornerstone of human behavior, helping to create a sense of stability and predictability in our lives. This is especially true in the workplace, where employees thrive on a sense of structure and routine. As a leader, incorporating regular rituals and routines into your team’s workflow can help to build a sense of trust and consistency.
The Importance of Rituals
In the “Bullies of Baltimore” documentary, Ray Lewis’ pre-game ritual was to watch the movie “Gladiator” before every game. It was a reference point for him to get himself mentally ready to play at a high level. Throughout the documentary, he quotes the movie and the key points that got him ready and psyched up for every game.
High performing teams have group rituals as well. In healthcare, we use a tool called a daily huddle to get together and share information. It gives the people on the team an opportunity to see and hear from each other every day. It keeps everyone informed and communicating.
The best leaders I have observed understand human psychology and human behavior. Rituals and inside jokes are a part of the human experience, dating back thousands of years, and are therefore part of the experience of being on an excellent team.
While rituals are important, they can’t be forced or manufactured by a leader. They happen as team members spend time together and build trust with one another. A leader’s responsibility is to create opportunities for teams to engage together in a meaningful way that may create these important bonds.
One small word of caution: A leader should be careful that they do not become the inside joke like Michael Scott does in the comedy series The Office. While a leader may not be included in every inside joke, becoming the joke is obviously not positive. Create the environment for bonds to happen, not to target a common enemy or leave anyone out.
Rituals, common language, and inside jokes, developed in an inclusive way can help teams thrive. The teams that bond together stay together, support each other, and pursue the best ideas in an environment of trust.
New leaders can use the power of rituals and inside jokes to build a cohesive team. These tools create a sense of identity and belonging that can boost team morale and inspire employees to achieve great things. When used inclusively and appropriately, inside jokes can help new leaders foster a positive work environment and build a strong team.
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