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Rites of Passage in the Workplace

Woman on wooden bridge in forest Photo by Flo Maderebner from Pexels

TL; DR

Rites of Passage help people transition through periods of uncertainty by both giving them a known and accepted routine to focus on, and by signaling to the individual and group that a change has happened. The use of rites of passage have been well-documented in sociology and psychology in helping people with transitions. Therefore, it makes sense that businesses utilize these methods to help teams and individuals with change. However, in my experience, they do not. This is a chance for companies, agile coaches, and individuals to start thinking about rites of passage and how they can be harnessed for good.

What is a Rite of Passage

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines it as:

: a ritual, event, or experience that marks or constitutes a major milestone or change in a person’s life.

Psychology Wiki has it defined as:

A rite of passage is a ritual that marks a change in a person’s social status. It is a universal phenomenon which can show anthropologists what social hierarchies, values, and beliefs are important in specific cultures.

What both have in common is that they are an experience that marks a major milestone or transition in someone’s life.

Why do I care

Rites of passage help with reducing uncertainty for both the person who is going through the rite, and for the groups who are affected by the person’s transition. This means it helps the individual and groups manage the transition in a predictable and reliable way without negatively affecting the morale of any of the people affected by the transition. In other words, it can help make a transition event more successful.

In Rebecca Lester’s article in Psychology Today she talks about how simple things like getting to ready for work were a rite of daily passage to help someone transition into a work environment from a home environment. In Bernadetta Janusz and Maciej Walkiewicz’s paper they describes how rites of passage are helping cancer patients deal with the stress of their diagnostics.

Yes, none of the definitions specifically call out work transitions, but the stress we are trying to manage in work transitions falls somewhere between the extremes of going to work and being diagnosed with cancer. As such, I do believe that well-thought-out rites of passage can help in the workplace.

What Can I do

The first thing is to realize that even small transitions in the workplace come with stress. It is the responsibility of leaders to think about and mitigate that stress as well as they can. The idea of a rite of passage can be a valuable tool in the toolkit of someone in a role.

Parts of a Rite of Passage

A rite of passage has a known plan with three distinct stages. The plan will map out each stage with given start and stop criteria. It will also call out expected points of uncertainty, thereby normalizing them. It helps by giving those who are going through the rite something solid to hold onto. That does not mean that each stage is meticulously scheduled, as that may be impossible. However, it does mean that quantifiable criteria are given for when each stage starts and stops.

Initiation

There are at least three distinct stages to every rite of passage, but that does not mean there cannot be more. The first stage represents the initiation of a transition from one social status to another. This stage focuses on normalizing uncertainty and giving the initiate a framework to build bonds and seek help. This stage is also when the initiate leaves their old social group.

Skills Acquisition

The second stage is all about building up bonds that are forming. This starts to empower the individual and guides them to the acquisition of skills needed in their new social role. This stage will set the individual up for success within the new group.

The second stage is also the stage where those who are affected by the transition get a chance to explore what the change will mean to them. Here the groups focus on themselves and how they are going to make their transition smoother.

Integration

The last stage of a rite of passage is integration. This is where the initiate enters their new social role and is expected to be, and helped in becoming, a contributing member of this new group. When this stage is over, the individual is fulfilling part of their new group and can function without much assistance.

Be Warned

It is easy to use any tool as a weapon. What is worse is when we are talking about social tools, it is easier to do unintentionally. We must be mindful of context, the people involved and how power is perceived and distributed through a system as well as what our intent is. Never build and design social tools in a vacuum. Things like this need to be reviewed by people with many different backgrounds and perspectives as possible to ensure you have something that is respectful of people. Then have it reviewed by people in different roles and within the organization to ensure you are respecting the context.

My Plan

In the following articles, I plan to cover some of the common events in business that cause people to enter a time of uncertainty. I believe that focusing on those events through a lens of a rite of passage will help us craft a better way to handle such things.

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.