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20 Feb 2017

Understanding Symbolic Actions in Business Leadership

Many business leaders stumble over the small things. Much is from not understanding symbolic actions. They often see symbols as only applying to fields such as politics and religion.

Understanding Symbols

Seeing the emotional impact of actions is at the root of understanding symbolic actions.

Understanding symbolic actions in business begins with understanding symbols such as flags.

A symbol is something whose emotional value outstrips its objective value. Flags are great examples. Their emotional value as logos for nations far outstrips their objective ones as pieces of cloth.

Yet, symbols can be anything. They can be things like processes and meetings. When we hear something like, “It’s always been done this way,” or “It has always been that way,” we are likely facing something symbolic.

Understanding Symbolic Actions

Actions, such as habits and behaviors can be symbolic too. When we hear of the need to “send a message,” we’re likely looking at symbolic actions. Weighing the “politics” of a decision is another sign. Hypocrisies are negative examples of symbolic actions. Witness the strong emotions they trigger.

For instance, take a leader who thinks drinking is bad. Now, if he extends that by frowning on those who drink, it becomes a moral litmus test. He’s affixing an emotion. It’s more than just something harmful to the body.

The affixed emotion becomes clearer if someone finds a picture of him on Facebook drinking. There would not be much fuss if he had not made such a fuss about it. The act is symbolic of something larger – hypocrisy.

Examples of Symbolic Actions in Business

Consider these examples:

  • A restaurant owner fires a waiter for giving bad service even though the waiter was his son.
  • An owner lays off 10% of his workforce and then drives up next week in a new $115,000 sports car.
  • Owners impose strict attendance hours on their employees but exempt themselves.
  • A company moves its headquarters from the town which has been its home for 125 years.
  • A firm promotes a talented millennial ahead of more senior but less-talented employees.
  • A manufacturing firm stops making its flagship product because of sagging sales.

In each case, there is another message besides the objective one:

  • No one is exempt from high service standards.
  • Layoffs preserved the owner’s lifestyle.
  • Attendance hours aren’t critical to the business.
  • The company has greatly outgrown its home.
  • Merit will prevail over seniority.
  • Products must change with the times.

Understanding Symbolic Actions is Like Understanding Fire

Every action of leaders has an emotional impact on others. The greater this impact the likelier the action becomes symbolic. That means it will impact others more than it seems logical.

Symbolic actions are like fire. Used rightly they ignite powerful motivations in others. Used wrongly, they burn everyone, including the leader.

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