When Superstitions Become Traditions and Organizations Become Timid

On a recent business trip to Philadelphia, I had the opportunity to speak at and attend a national conference hosting campus law enforcement professionals from around the world.  After checking in and arriving at my room late the first evening, I hadn’t noticed an oddity that would immediately catch my attention the following morning.

You see after I prepared myself the following morning, I walked to the awaiting elevator on my floor.  And as I entered the car, turned and reached to choose the floor hosting the event, I was struck by the presence of a button I could not recall having seen before in a hotel:  a Thirteenth floor.

Now, I will readily defer to those who have traveled far more than me, though I have managed to stay in over forty of the United States to this point.  Yet in all those experiences of various hotels that were sufficiently tall enough to exceed thirteen and many more floors, never had I actually seen listed a 13th floor on the elevator panel, nor anywhere else where I have stayed.  In fact, in every case, it was the far more common and standard practice of jumping from the 12th to the 14th floor on every panel I’d ever seen.

This highly unique scenario got me to thinking about the history and reasoning behind the practice of high rise buildings intentionally masking the thirteenth floor.  While there are plenty of anecdotal references ranging from a building owner’s own sense of triskaidekaphobia to the owner or landlord wanting to avoid issues that may arise with superstitious tenants, occupants, or customers, it just seemed odd that such a profound effect a superstition could have upon cultures, communities, and organizations.

Which then got me to thinking about the various practices, standards and ultimately the traditions that are created among my own and other organizations, and where and why those become accepted.

I realized that in all too many cases, traditions came about from long-ago held beliefs, perhaps driven by as little as a single occurrence in which the impact upon a group was so significant that they did all they could to avoid those same circumstances in the future.  In several instances, it was clear that while very unique conditions may have existed on a fateful day (or night) when something tragic occurred, that very uniqueness of the overall situation was often lost among the perspective of that group.  In turn, they came to equate that event as being the direct product of when certain surrounding elements all replicated themselves enough to set the stage for a similar disaster to occur.

Now, I’m not about to suggest that a practice or policy or function in a company or agency would rival a cultural phenomenon like the avoidance of the thirteenth floor.  But to even a smaller organization, a bad/tragic/catastrophic event could very well live on for decades through the collective fear of the leaders and followers who feel powerless to move beyond it—and those fears are passed on to new generations of employees who in turn “follow the rules” to avoid that crisis or calamity.

There’s a very important point in that hypothesis.  You see, if a leader can’t find the courage to move past a tough period or experience the organization has survived, surely the followers will remain influenced and ill-prepared to find the means or method to communicate their desire to do so-no matter how compelling their new information or proposal may be.

I would like to suggest that we as leaders have a very different responsibility to tradition:  That we must respectfully, but diligently, challenge it on a regular basis.  We must find the source of the conventions that brought it to life, and to survive challenges of the past.  And I believe we must be willing to demonstrate the purpose and value in ridding ourselves of these often limiting beliefs by finding our own traditions that simply need to go.

When you think of it that way, you can see that there really is no need to ‘skip’ things anymore, and that by taking on our own openly, we will encourage others to remove their own inhibitors.