Why New Leaders Should Embrace Rituals and Inside Jokes to Foster Team Identity

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.

Rituals and Inside Jokes helped bring the Baltimore Ravens together to win a Super Bowl

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.

Creating Language

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.

Key Takeaways

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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Practice and preparation

Last week I wrote about the Washington Nationals historic run to win the World Series. Continuing on the sports theme this week, football can teach us a lot about the value of practice and preparation.

Unlike baseball’s grueling 162 game schedule, the NFL plays just 16 regular season games over 17 weeks in their season. Therefore most of the work of a football team is practice and preparation for each game. Coaches and players study film from previous games, practices, meet together, and strategize for their opponents, often around the clock.

Football coaches teach us about the value of organized practice and preparation, which we can apply to the practice of leadership. Over the summer, I read Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All Time by Ian O’Connor. Of the many excellent examples and anecdotes in the book, O’Connor wrote about a now famous play in the final minutes that helped the Patriots win Super Bowl XLIX (49) against the Seattle Seahawks.

In the play, Malcolm Butler intercepted Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson’s pass at the Patriots goal line. The Patriots coaches had the team run this play several times in practice, where Butler played it incorrectly. In the big game though, Butler got it right and helped seal the win for the Patriots. Here’s the story from the coaches:

(If you are having problems viewing the video, you can click here for it)

Practice and preparation can make a world of difference. At work, I have developed a couple of systems to aid in making sure I am prepared. For example, I always print out my calendar for the upcoming week. I highlight in the color blue all the scheduled events that require preparation. I put copies of the documents I need for those meetings in a folder whose front cover is my highlighted weekly agenda.

I know I feel the most confident in presentations that I have practiced and tested with different audiences. I will take bits and pieces of new ideas and test them out in smaller settings before adding them to larger presentations to make sure that they work with an audience. I will also practice the final presentation repeatedly (usually practicing in front of my patient wife, Sheryl) to feel confident that I know the order and timing of everything when the time for the big presentation arrives.

What are your systems for practice and preparation? I would like to hear more about them and include them in a future blog post. Please share them with me here.

KEY TAKEAWAY: The practice and preparation involved in football teaches lessons for leaders in business as well. Often times leaders develop systems to prepare and practice for opportunities ahead to stay at the top of their games. 

Is it cool to be negative?

On February 4th 2019, I woke up to a social media blitz of posts that were mostly variations on the same theme: “Worst Super Bowl ever” and “Worst Super Bowl halftime show ever”. In case you are living under a rock, Super Bowl LIII (53) pitted the young, high-scoring Los Angeles Rams offense against the dynastic New England Patriots. The Patriots won their 6th championship of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era by a score of 13-3.

The low-scoring affair was panned as “boring”. If you ask people, watching the Patriots win their 6th championship in 9 appearances, was a painfully dull affair. Coupled with the game itself, the half time show was criticized for a lackluster performance by the topless and heavily tattooed Adam Levine, lead singer of the band Maroon 5.

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This is just one instance that I have seen lately of collective negativity on social media. Lately, I have noticed it more and it is contagious.

The more I have been exposed to sources of negativity, the more I found myself being more critical and negative at work. Colleagues would ask me for my opinion on one thing or another and I often heard myself expressing a negative perspective with a message like, “that will never work” or “that will never happen”. In my own experience, I try to avoid people who tend to have a negative outlook because I find it to be de-energizing. But with negativity being so pervasive on social media, I had to ask: Is it cool to be negative? Why do we reward negative behavior?

In my research, I found an article in the Harvard Business Review by Dr. Eileen Chou, a professor at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia entitled, Why We’re Drawn to Leaders Who Emphasize the Negative. In her article, Chou presented studies that show that people are drawn to negative rhetoric more than they are to positive, citing human psychology and social hierarchy as an explanation. For example, she hypothesizes that negative leaders seem more independent, so we are more likely to follow them.

However, she concludes that human fondness of negativity in leaders may not last in the long run. Perceptions of leaders can change over time and someone who is simply negative about everything may seem unreasonable.

I remember interacting with someone very early in my career who was consistently negative about new ideas. It was my first exposure to the strong tide of, “We tried that once and it didn’t work” and “But we’ve always done it this way”. At the time, I remember respectfully responding, “I am not interested in the 10,000 ways something will not work, but I am interested in the 1 way it can”.

I still believe in that sentiment. I believe that anything can be solved with the right team working on it for the right reasons. However, the pull of negativity is psychologically strong and we are increasingly surrounded by it on social media. We have to accept it as a tactic that online influencers will sometimes use to build up their brand and followers.

Since society is moving us towards negativity, it is up to us to act:

First to be aware of it.

Second, we should understand and filter it. Understanding it entails deciding whether it is a genuine perspective or just click-bait negativity. If it is a genuine perspective, we should ask for more detail to learn about it. We should challenge our assumptions as to whether someone is a negative person, or is expressing constructive criticism or caution because the latter who are important to hear. Over-optimism can lead to group-think and that be damaging too. If the remarks are click-bait negativity, filter it by ignoring it and moving on.

Third and finally, for major business decisions, leaders should always be scenario planning for the multiple outcomes using tools like the Implications wheel.

Glorifying the negative can have damaging effects on organizations and societies. Practicing reflection and self-awareness can go a long way. Even something as simple as saying, “I am not sure” rather than defaulting to a negative point of view can be empowering. Staying positive may be tough, but it is an important leadership trait and hallmark to keep the energy and motivation up in your team.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Staying positive is difficult and being attracted to negativity is rooted in human psychology. Through awareness, understanding, filtering, and scenario planning, we can hear constructive criticism, take caution, and understand negative outcomes in a helpful context.