Symbols Mean Something: Don’t Ignore Them

“So what if his office is bigger.” “Our project must not be important since we can’t get a bigger work room.” “He must be important. He eats with the Vice Presidents.” “When you’re a VP, you park in front of the building.” All of these are examples of what symbols do to send messages.

My reference says that “symbols reinforce the values of the culture. . .reinforce what and who is important.” The Oxford English Dictionary says that a symbol is “a thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract.”

I once heard about a major company that had an executive dining room. When you approached the door, a maitre d’ escorted you to your table. A chef cooked your meal. You ate off china and silver. The rest of “the great unwashed” ate slop in the cafeteria (“Can I have some more?”) off paper plates using plastic utensils. It was obvious who had made it and who hadn’t.

The following is a list of symbols in the workplace (ref.):

  • Office or Open Space
  • Size of Office and Size of Desk
  • Location of Office Space
  • Location Relative to Managers
  • Access to Computer and Type of Computer or Access
  • Office Amenities (e.g. carpet, etc.)
  • Titles and Meaning of Titles
  • Access to Conference Rooms
  • Team Rooms
  • Work Rooms
  • Storage Rooms
  • Access to, or Possession of, Keys
  • Parking (Covered, Uncovered, Reserved, Not Reserved, Location)
  • Dress Code (Formal or Informal)
  • Lounge or Recreation Facilities
  • Eating Facilities
  • Who is Taken to Lunch by Whom
  • Memberships in Clubs and Societies
  • Invitations to Social Events

Now, some employees take such things to extremes. I call it “1+1=42.” “I just saw Steve come out of the VP’s office. They were laughing together yesterday. He must be in line for promotion.” Obviously, something was being inferred that was not being implied.

Nonetheless, symbols must be managed to ensure that the proper message is being sent about the culture and the values of the company.

However, symbols can work in the other direction as well. Just about every office in America has at least one Dilbert cartoon posted in it. But when it grows into wallpaper, something might be wrong. When a trusted employee removes all their personal items from their office, something might be wrong.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Mr. Czerniak retired after a successful career that culminated in fifteen years of experience as an internal consultant and “change agent.”  He is currently a volunteer at the Macomb-Oakland University Incubator and the Troy Historic Village and Society.

REFERENCE:  Change Management:  Creating the Dynamic Organization through Whole System Architecture © 1997 Miller/Howard Consulting Group, Inc., Atlanta, Georgia, Lawrence M. Miller & Helene F. Uhlfelder, Ph. D.

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