“Are we the baddies?!” Symbols and organisational cultures

Once your own culture becomes invisible to you, you know you have become a victim of it. There are, however, physical manifestations of our organizational life that we can notice – if we look: symbols. Look and ask around your organisation, and you will find them everywhere. You’ll see hundreds of physical artifacts such as dress, furniture, buildings, offices, parking spaces, slogans, logos, pictures, policy statements, publications, and so on. You’ll also notice many that are more conceptual, albeit usually with physical manifestations, such as goals, targets, measures, league tables, ranks, titles, competitions, incentives, and punishments. When we notice, interrogate and deconstruct the symbols that surround us, we are repaid with rich insights into our assumptions, values, beliefs and ways of doing things.

The trouble is, symbols often blend in to our experience or fade into the background of our awareness, so we don’t consciously notice them. A brilliant illustration of this phenomenon has been provided courtesy of British comics Mitchell and Webb. In a WW2 battle scene, Mitchell and Webb play two German SS officers – Eric and Hans. Eric has noticed something very troubling about the symbol on their SS caps.

This exchange highlights several issues of organisational culture. These are discussed academically by Rafaeli and Worline in their analysis of the functions is symbols in organisational culture (in Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate). According to Rafaeli and Worline, symbols have four key functions:

The first function is to reflect basic and shared values or assumptions. Building on work in anthropology, symbols are argued to represent underlying values, assumptions, philosophies, and expectations of organizational life. The second function is to influence behavior by eliciting internalized values and norms. Extending work in social psychology, we argue that people act out the roles in which they are placed. Awareness of those roles is influenced by symbol. The third function is to facilitate member communication about organizational life. Sociological frame analysis shows that symbols act as frames of reference that facilitate conversation about abstract concepts. The final function is integration. Drawing on semiotic analysis, we argue that organizational symbols capture the systems of meaning that integrate emotion, cognition, and behavior into shared codes.

Rafeili and Worline’s analysis, while repetitive, provides a way to consider this scene, and throws up questions about the symbols that surround us.

Function 1: Symbol as reflection of organizational culture

According to Rafeili and Worline, symbols provide tangible, sensory expressions of shared realities; a way to understand the organisations they reflect. They suggest that symbols help bridge the gap between feeling and thought in organisations: “symbol sparks feelings and helps make those feelings comprehensible.”

Travelling Europe in the 2000s, I would always notice a difference in dress between UK border control (casual dress) and most other European countries (official uniform). The difference  was marked, and I had an impression of a sloppy operation at border control. Having worked on human factors in border control, I knew this was not rational, but my mind equated a uniform with discipline and vigilance.

Sure enough, in 2007, the Border and Immigration Agency announced new uniforms for staff along with signage, designed to present “a single highly visible presence at the border” according to Director of Border Control Brodie Clark in a press release in October 2007, adding, “Initial feedback from staff and the travelling public towards the uniforms has been very positive.”

So, the first function bridges between feeling and thought. On the battlefield, Eric is troubled by what he has noticed, and is trying to make sense of his feelings about an aspect of his own uniform:

Eric: Yeah, er, Hans I’ve just noticed something.
Hans: These communists are all cowards.
Eric: Have you looked at our caps recently?
Hans:: Our caps?
Eric: Yeah, yeah, the badges on our caps…Have you looked at them?
Hans: Yeah, er, a bit.
Eric: They’ve got skulls on them. Have you noticed that the little badges on our caps have actually got pictures of skulls on them?
Hans: I don’t see, er…
Eric: Hans, are we the baddies?!

Function 2: Symbol as a trigger of internalized values and norms

The second function puts the values and norms into action, evoking associated states and feelings, and unconsciously priming behaviour. Rafeili and Worline point out that research in social psychology has demonstrated that people often act out the roles in which they are placed, and that symbols elicit this behaviour. They recall the engineers who objected to the launching of the Challenger Space Shuttle were told “Now put on your managerial hat and take off your engineering hat. We need to make a managerial decision (Timmons, 1991).” The two hats reflect a  conflict between engineering and managerial goals. Research shows that actual attire, such as uniforms or badges, triggers organizational norms (Rafaeli, 1989). Rafeili and Worline note that “Rafaeli & Pratt (1993) and Van Maanen (1978) illustrate how a police uniform makes people outside of the police organization accept orders or instructions unquestioningly, even if they have never engaged in social interaction with the particular police officer.”

Dress in organisations is a highly visible symbol, and can be fickle. I once worked in an organisation where nearly all office-based men wore a tie. Then a new CEO came along who did not wear a tie. Within weeks, the ties were off. The CEO primed behaviour by example, giving implicit permission to remove ties.

In summary, the second function of symbol is as a bridge from feeling and thought to action. Eric seems to be concerned about the behavioural function of the skull symbol:

Hans: We should be able to hold them at this point here, at least for a few hours.
Eric: Why skulls though?
Hans: What?
Eric: Why skulls?
Hans: Well, maybe they’re the skulls of our enemies.
Eric: Maybe, but is that how it comes across?! I mean it doesn’t say next to the skull, you know, yeah we killed him, but trust us this guy was horrid.

Function 3: Symbol as a frame for conversations about experience

The third function of symbols is to provide a vehicle for communication. Symbols provide a frame of reference for discussion of otherwise abstract or ambiguous notions that are critical to the organisation such as organisational identity, values, priorities, and beliefs. Listening carefully to conversations about symbol reveals much about the organisational culture..

Many of us have worked in organisations which have undergone major rebranding exercises. I have been through two. The symbols – logos, colour schemes, slogans, and so on – provide a conversational currency to discuss organisational identity. Designers are often surprised at the reactions to such changes, perhaps underestimating conservatism and attachment to particular symbols. Several failed rebranding exercises are testament to this such as the Royal Mail’s £2,000,000 journey to Consignia, and back again. Much worse was BP. In 2000, BP rebranded and introduced a new logo – a green, yellow and white flower – with the slogan ‘beyond petroleum’. Ten years later, Deepwater Horizon happened. Competitions were launched by Greenpeace and others to redesign the new green logo. The symbol became a weapon that was subverted and used against the organisation. The exercise of brand research and supporting the rebranding was estimated at over $200,000,000, prompting conversations about priorities of branding versus alternative energy development.

The third function of symbols is to assist conversation. Listening to these conversations shines a light on mindsets that may have lay dormant, or just hadn’t been noticed before. Eric interrogates the meaning of the skull:

Eric: Well, what do skulls make you think of…death, cannibals, beheading, pirates?
Hans: Pirates are fun!
Eric: I didn’t say we weren’t fun, but fun or not, pirates are still the baddies. I just can’t think of anything good about a skull!

Eric: “I mean, I really can’t think of anything worse as a symbol than a skull!”

Function 4: Symbol as an integrator of organizational systems of meaning

The fourth function of symbols ties together the first three functions, by helping people integrate their experiences into coherent systems of meaning; symbols allow people to “make sense of the organization and to find their place within it“. In this function, symbols reveal codes of meaning in the undercurrents of the organisation and privides historical waypoints for organisational members.

This brings it all together. In the live version of the sketch, the scene with Hans and Eric continues. Eric is locating his experience in a troubling historical context:

Hans: Eric, why are you worrying about badges and symbols, it’s not important.
Eric: Well, you know how they say history is written by the victors, so that their symbols be remembered in a positive way, and their defeated enemies’ in a bad way? Well if the Allies win, we’ve kind of done quite a lot of that work for them already with the skulls.

Hans: So where’s all this going?
Eric: Well you know how at the beginning of the war we did really well and the Allies nearly lost but now things seem to be going a lot better for them?
Hans: Yeah
Eric: Well have you ever seen a film…
Hans: What?
Eric: Well, I’ve never seen a film where the goodies start off really successfully, really nearly achieve their goals, but then the baddies come back very strongly, but the goodies still eventually win. Whereas I have seen a lot of films where the baddies start off very successfully, but then the goodies come back strongly and eventually win. I’m just increasingly uncomfortable about our place in the narrative structure of this war.

So there we have it. The four functions of symbols, acted out by Mitchell and Webb. As summarised by Rafeili and Worline:

Symbols serve four functions in organizations. They reflect underlying aspects of culture, generating emotional responses from organizational members and representing organizational values and assumptions. They elicit internalized norms of behavior, linking members’ emotional responses and interpretations to organizational action. They frame experience, allowing organizational members to communicate about vague, controversial, or uncomfortable organizational issues. And, they integrate the entire organization in one system of signification.

I am curious about your observations about symbols in your organisations. Personally, I try to reflect on what symbols have to say about the systems and cultures I come into contact with, especially questions of purpose, goals, power, incentives, constraints, information flows, relationships, assumptions, values, beliefs and norms…and about me. It never hurts to ask ourselves, at least occasionally, are we the baddies!?

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About stevenshorrock

I am a systems ergonomist/human factors specialist and work psychologist with a background in practice and research in safety-critical industries. My main interest is human and system behaviour in the context of safety-related organisations. I seek to enable improvement via a combination of systems thinking, design thinking and humanistic thinking. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales, School of Aviation. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock
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