The role of cadence and ritual at work
If you’ve ever endured a spin class—and weren’t too sweaty and out of breath at the time—you might have unintentionally pondered two things that some managers should be be pondering on purpose.
One of those things is cadence. Cadence is periodic rhythm; like the cranking of your legs as they pedal with the music.
The other is ritual, which are the purposeful moments that dot your workout experience: the warm-up stretch, the reliable encouragement from your instructor, the cool down at the end. But what does indoor cycling have to do with management technique?
Slice open a typical manager’s brain and you’ll find a lot of thinking about employee resources and time. But managers who consider concepts like cadence and ritual are tapping into a way to harness their team’s energy. It might be the most important thing they can do, and there’s plenty of science that agrees.
Kick the drum, punch the clock
Think of cadence like a perpetual pulse. It’s the bass drum in the background, keeping the beat. And while it can be steady, and generally predictable, when the beat changes the rest of the band tends to go with it.
Which is why cadence at your workplace is so important. From the individual routines of your staff (get out of bed, brush teeth, commute to work, grab a coffee, etc.) to longer wavelengths like your company’s fiscal year, cadence manifests itself everywhere. (At Asana we use episodes to define our cadence.)
Establishing a cadence to your team’s work can generate structure and predictability. Cadence gives a team a feeling of demarcation, progression, resolution or flow. A pattern which allows the team to know what they are doing and when it will be done.
I’ve got rhythm, I’ve got deadlines
How can managers use cadence to get the best out of their team? Remember that everyone marches to the beat of a different drum. No one can be at 100% of their mental energy all the time. Just as we need sleep and rest to balance our active, waking lives, we need moments of clarity and routine to balance the higher-stress and frenetic parts of work life. The cadence-conscious manager should consider their team’s internal rhythms when scheduling tasks and meetings—and even while long-term planning. After a stressful launch, for example, some built-in down time isn’t a bad thing.
Managers who consider concepts like cadence and ritual are tapping into a way to harness their team’s energy.
There’s an old trope from the world of stress management that the weight of a glass of water is not absolute: it just depends on how long you’re holding it. In other words, the glass feels heavier the longer you have to hold it up, just as our stress feels stronger the longer we hold it in.
Build in time for making decisions and resolving conflict so that your teammates don’t have to hold on to anxiety or stress for too long. And on the flip side, a well-thought-out cadence includes time for spontaneity, giving your team the opportunity to get creative and try something different.
Your own personal cadence
Consider your personal cadence and how it affects your energy levels. Your energy can (and does) carry over to your team, and can actually affect their performance. Watch for things that deplete your short-term and long-term energy, and try to plan those activities at appropriate times. For example, are you grumpy in the morning, or when you’re hungry right before lunch? Try not to schedule contentious conversations when you know you’ll have low energy.
Sharing insights with your team about your own cadence and energy levels might make you feel vulnerable, but it’s a worthwhile gambit. This will not only make you more relatable, but will also serve as a reminder to them to check in on their energy and be aware of the times of day or week when they’re at their best.
A calendar of cadence
Here are some ways to visualize the role of cadence at your workplace.
A daily cadence is optimal for on the fly updates and interruption handling.
- Stand ups
- Check ins
- Meals (make sure your team has time for nourishment!)
Weekly or monthly
Every week or every few weeks is a good cadence for team communication and trend-spotting.
- Status meetings
- One on one meetings
- Reviewing key reports and metrics
Quarterly or episodically
For short-term planning, reflection, and celebration aim for a quarterly cadence.
- Project planning
- Performance reviews
- Team offsites or dinners
An annual cadence is best for long-term planning and for expensive processes.
- Company trips
- Critical goal setting
As a team lead, your role is to ensure that these frequencies make sense and actually help the team direct their energy. Not sure if it’s working? Ask them. If your team isn’t engaged during your weekly check-in, think about whether it’s at the right frequency. Look for gaps and make sure your cadence allows for planning, feedback, and importantly: celebration.
The role of ritual
Even before humans knew how to measure time, they had rituals. Cultural anthropologists believe that ritual is a symbolical enactment of social relationships that have beneficial effects on the social order. Put another way, early humans were less likely to spear a fellow tribe-mate if they were celebrating together too.
It’s 100,000 years later and stab-preventing rituals are still at work. Rituals represent points in our cadence that are moments of pause, reflection, and thought. If cadence is like sentences and paragraphs, rituals are the punctuation marks in between. And as a manager it’s an opportunity to turn question marks into exclamation points.
Rituals are happenings that strengthen team bonds and can help reinforce desired behavior. Like the bell that rings when someone closes a deal, or a special gift for an employee anniversary. Even saying “thank you” in front of the entire company can be a powerful ritual.
They are also a way of managing the anxiety that can sometimes result at work. Providing a place for stress, grief, and catharsis adds definition to the cycles of cadence. Rituals provide closure on big projects, and similarly can get your team excited about the next one.
But ritual is more about action. It’s about the underlying meaning of those actions. Because ultimately, rituals are what define a company culture.
As Asana, we use rituals as a way strengthen our company culture and give embodiment to our company values. As an example, all new employees are welcomed with a Tibetan gong. When the staff hears the bell, they drop what they’re doing and congregate to meet the new staffer. It’s not just a rite of passage for the new hire, it’s a way of making his or her reverberations felt throughout the company.
Let your rituals evolve
For managers, it’s important to understand what these rituals are about before imposing them on a team. Be mindful if a ritual is effective at energizing your team, and if not, review and debug your process.
It’s also possible to outgrow your rituals and after a time rituals can become a caricature of the company culture. Try to keep them relevant.
And yes, it’s hard work. But feeling follows action, and rituals can be thought of as the organizational equivalent of smiling; willing a mental outcome through manifesting a physical action. In other words, “performing rituals with the intention of producing a certain result appears to be sufficient for that result to come true.”*
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