Alison Wood Brooks used her own research when she interviewed for a job at Harvard Business School this spring. “Academic job interviews are very intense,” she said. “They ask you very difficult questions.”
So she started preparing for questions and the lecture that would come after a day of packed interviews. Her ritual of preparation followed the pattern she’d established earlier in her career for giving academic talks. “I always pack the same outfit and get ready in the same order. I lay out the outfit, shower do my hair and makeup and put on the suit,” she said. “I practice the talk exactly once” wearing the heels she’d be wearing. Then she heads out the door.
Her ritual worked. Brooks started in July as an assistant professor at Harvard.
An array of rituals—from deep breathing and then a drink of water before a presentation to spinning the basketball before a free throw—allow people to improve their performance at a crucial moment in their career. Pre-performance rituals can improve confidence, concentration, and emotional stability.
With a PhD from the Wharton School, Brooks has studied everyday anxiety in individuals for years as well as workers’ concerns “about deadlines, when they have to meet with a boss, when they have to perform under pressure.” She’s found that “people have very complex rituals that are very ingrained in their lives,” and in their work.
Her recent research, conducted with two University of Chicago professors and a Wharton School professor, was presented at a panel on the value of rituals at the Academy of Management conference in September.
Brooks and her fellow researchers asked test subjects to sing “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey with a karaoke machine. They were told they would be evaluated on their singing accuracy, measured by voice recognition software. The request definitely raised their stress levels, she noted.
Some participants completed a five-step ritual beforehand: They drew a quick sketch of their feelings, sprinkled the drawing with salt, counted to five, crumpled the paper and threw it in the trash. Those participants sang better after the ritual than those who sat quietly for a minute; they also reported lower nervousness.
Another test involved a math problem, Gauss’s modular arithmetic task. Some participants followed the same ritual detailed above, another group was asked to wait two minutes before completing it, and others watched and answered a couple questions about an unrelated video clip of a coral reef. One group drew a tree and others drew their feelings, an unconnected and a connected ritual, respectively.
Those who performed the connected ritual did the best at solving the math problem. “The connected ritual was more effective than the distraction alone, and much more effective than an affectively unconnected ritual as well as simply waiting,” the researchers wrote in a paper presented to the Academy of Management conference last month.
“There’s some sort of calming essence doing something sequential and ordered. It sort of increases your sense of self” and may slow your heart rate, Brooks said.
Other papers from Academy of Management session indicate that “avoidant action” like throwing salt or knocking on wood make people feel like they’re reducing risk, lowering their concerns or reversing a jinx. Rituals also may improve people’s sense of control and alleviate grief. At work, team rituals may reinforce desired behaviors and create a shared identity, a professor from Milan writes in the Harvard Business Review.
What is Brooks’ advice for creating a ritual before a key job interview or conversation with their boss? “It depends if the person believes in good luck,” she said. “Having a superstitious element is very helpful.”