“You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I'll tell you. I don't know. But it's a tradition.”
- Fiddler on the Roof
In my life, I’ve been a part of many organizations, groups, companies and non-profits including at least two marching bands. Also, I may have kind of accidentally started a minor cult in 7th grade.
When I think back to the places I’ve felt the greatest sense of belonging, the groups with the strongest sense of tradition always bubble to the top. They become a part of your life. Their terminology inundates your vocabulary. You can make inside jokes decades later and still laugh about them. They bind you in indescribable ways to the people you shared them with.
Building a strong company culture goes hand in hand with building strong traditions. Most Jellyvision employees fondly remember their first day of work because it ended with a standing ovation from the entire company as they left the building. When you learn the meaning and history of insider terms like “doughnuts*” or “boop†” at Jellyvision, you feel like you’re becoming a part of something bigger than yourself.
Tradition is born, not made. By the third season of Seinfeld, the writers had already coined dozens of catchphrases, so when they wrote an episode where Jerry suggests replacing the traditional post-sneeze affirmation of “bless you” with “you are so good looking,” they were fairly confident it would become the next “No soup for you.” It didn’t.
What catches on and what doesn’t can be very unpredictable. At Jellyvision, we bought a gong with the idea that we would ring it whenever something significant happened. We rung it a few times. Now the gong hangs quietly on a wall despite a crazy year of gong-worthy moments. (It turns out a loud unexpected gong can be pretty jarring.)
Conversely, traditions can spring forth from unexpected places. Many years ago, Jellyvision was very small and mostly dudes. One exception was the then-president-now-CEO of the company, Amanda, who in her unique style demanded that we “honor her” for her birthday. (I’ll leave out the expletives.) How do a bunch of dudes honor their leader? We grew mustaches and ate steak. We’ve done it every year since, even as the company has grown. Now, nearly a decade later, Mustache Day is such a part of Jellyvision’s culture that we have a whole mustache-themed conference room filled with framed pictures of ridiculous mustaches grown (or taped on, if you're a lady or not facial-hair-blessed) by Jellyvision employees throughout the years. There’s also a picture of Hulk Hogan.
So, how do you create traditions if they’re totally unpredictable? Here are some tips:
- Hire interesting people. Boring people don’t inspire traditions. Interesting people do.
- Let people be themselves. Don’t have too many rules that govern how people are required to act at work. The weird idiosyncrasies are what make a workplace interesting. Go ahead and wear those Daisy Dukes, fella.
- Don’t shoot down ideas. People will have ideas for the workplace that won’t make sense to you. Say, just to pull something out of thin air that would never actually happen, an employee wants to order 100 inflatable Santas. Trust them.
- Bring the outside in. Encourage employees to bring their interests outside of the company into the company. You love Vampire-based role-playing games? Awesome. Let’s hear about them.
- Give it another go. Your tradition didn’t catch on the first time? Try it again. And again. Okay, that’s enough. It’s not gonna happen.
- Embrace the accidents. Say someone wanted to end a team meeting with a common affirmation, but accidentally used a slang term for genitalia. Let’s end all our meetings that way. (See “forgiving definition of ‘appropriate’” in the footnote below.)
Having a rich company culture filled with traditions is one of the best ways to attract great talent to your company. Let’s face it, we spend a lot of time at work. It should be fun.
* An e-mail of dubious taste was forwarded to the whole company many years ago. At a company with a very forgiving definition of “appropriate,” that’s really saying something. The author of said e-mail felt so bad about offending people that he brought in doughnuts for the entire company the next day as an apology. Now, whenever someone sends a borderline-inappropriate e-mail to the whole company, a common reply is “doughnuts.”
† Jellyvision used to have a phone system with an “all-page” feature that allowed anyone to enter a code in their phone and then speak through every speakerphone in the office. When the code was entered, each phone would emit a beep before the announcement. This feature was naturally abused. One such abuse was to let people know that a multiplayer first-person-shooter game was starting and anyone interested should join up. Eventually no announcement was necessary. The beep itself was enough to let people know to start the game. When we finally replaced our phones with a system that didn’t support all-page, the multiplayer call-to-arms consisted of someone simulating the all-page beep by shouting, “boooooooooop.” “Boop” is now used in conversation. For example: “Are we booping at 6 o’clock?”