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individuals and organizations tell about themselves anchor identity and hope. Vough and Caza (2017) note that when individuals experience career setbacks, they do better going forward if they tell a positive story. For example, one manager said about a career setback: “I actually don’t regret . . . [not being promoted], because it helpedme better understand how to navigate the political landscape, to really trust myself, and not allow others’ opinions to in”uence my own sense of self-worth” (p. 203).
Stories are told and retold around camp!res and during family reunions (Clark, 2004). David Armstrong, CEO of Armstrong International, notes that storytelling has played a commanding role in history through the teachings of Jesus, the Buddha, and Mohammed, among many others. It can play an equally potent role in contemporary organizations: “Rules, either in policy manuals or on signs, can be intimidating. But the morals in stories are invariably inviting, fun, and inspiring. Through storytelling our people can know very clearly what the company believes in and what needs to be done” (Armstrong, 1992, p. 6). To Armstrong, storytelling is a simple, timeless, and memorable way to have fun, train newcomers, recognize accomplishments, and spread the word. Denning (2005) puts the functions of stories into eight categories:
• Sparking action
• Communicating who you are
• Communicating who the company is—branding
• Transmitting values
• Fostering collaboration
• Taming the grapevine
• Sharing knowledge
• Leading people into the future
Effective organizations are full of good stories. They often focus on the legendary exploits of corporate heroes. Marriott Hotels founder J. W. Marriott Sr. died many years ago, but his presence lives on. Stories of his unwavering commitment to customer service linger. His aphorism “Take good care of your employees and they’ll take good care of your customers” is still part of Marriott’s philosophy. According to fable, Marriott visited new general managers and took them for a walk around the property. He pointed out broken branches, sidewalk pebbles, and obscure cobwebs. By tour’s end, the new manager had a long to-do list—and, more important, an indelible lesson in what mattered at Marriott.
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Not all stories center on the founder or chief executive. Ritz-Carlton is famous for the upscale treatment it offers guests. It begins with the Ritz-Carlton credo and service values, reviewed at the daily “lineup” in every property and carried by every employee in a wallet- sized card. (Another hotel chain planned to implement a similar approach but then canceled the initiative to save the cost of the cards.) “My pleasure” is employees’ traditional response to requests, nomatter how demanding or trivial. One hurried guest jumped into a taxi to the airport but left his briefcase on the sidewalk. The doorman retrieved the briefcase, abandoned his post, sped to the airport, and delivered it to the panicked guest. Instead of being !red, the doorman became part of the legends and lore—a living example of the company’s commitment to service (Deal and Jenkins, 1994).
Stories are a key medium for communicating corporate myths. They establish and perpetuate tradition. Recalled and embellished in formal meetings and informal coffee breaks, they convey and buttress an organization’s values and identity to insiders, building loyalty and support. At a company’s annual celebration banquet, a nervous executive serving as the night’s emcee introduced all the VIPs seated at the head dais. As he was completing his obviously compulsory assignment, a younger man stepped up behind him and whispered, “You forgot to mention the chairman.”
A red-faced, “ustered emcee turned to the crowd and apologized, “Oh yes, and of course our esteemed chairman of the board, Dr. Frye. Excuse me, Dr. Frye, my secretary left your name off the list.” Frye turned to his COO: “John, I want that guy !red tomorrow. That’s not the way we do things around here. Honesty and owning your mistakes are a big part of who we are.” The story spread quickly through the cultural network. Point made.
Or take Costco, widely recognized for its low prices and high value. Jim Sinegal, founder and former CEO of Costco, is known as a masterful storyteller constantly spinning yarns that reinforce the value of putting the interests of customers and employees ahead of stockholders:
In 1996 we were selling between $150,000 and $200,000 worth of salmon !llet every week at $5.99 a pound. Then our buyers were able to get an improved product with belly fat, back !ns, and collarbones removed, at a better price. As a result we reduced our retail price to $5.29. So they improved the product and lowered the price. The buyers weren’t !nished with the improvements, though. Next our buyers negotiated for a product with the pin bone out and all of the skin removed, and it was at an even better price, which enabled us to lower our price to $4.99 a pound. Then, because we had continued to grow and had increased our sales volume, we
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were able to buy direct from Canadian and Chilean farms, which resulted in an even lower price of $4.79 (Denning, 2005, p. 137).
The “salmon story” is a widely shared symbolic reminder that low prices and high value are central to Costco’s core purpose. The story’s meaning is reinforced by a “salmon award” given to an employee or supplier who shows great diligence in contributing to Costco’s mission. Each award celebrates new stories and creates new lore.
“What else have we got besides stories?” Sinegal asks, “It’s what brings meaning to the work we do” (Fisher, Harris, and Jarvis, 2008).
Costco does not advertise, because fans and the media tell their story for them. Costco couldn’t say it better than “GearheadGrrrl” in a Daily Kos post:
Been looking for a small tool set to carry in the cars and sidecars, and Costco had the best deal with an American made Craftsman set for $100, now marked down to $80 . . . I was still looking for a better “oor jack and Costco had one for $100 that goes down as low as 4” to get under my cars and up to 18” to get the car up where it’s easier on my back to work on. Shopped local, but anything equivalent was at least $150 . . . My back is much happier now! So folks, that’s the “Costco effect.” How Costco saves consumers dollars on mass market merchandise in major markets, while leaving opportunities for small local businesses to cater to our needs for specialty merchandise. Add in the living wages that Costco pays that allow Costco employees to funnel more dollars back into the economy, and we have a “Costco effect” that bene!ts workers, consumers, and businesses of all sizes instead of funneling wealth to the few like Walmart does! (GearheadGrrrl, 2013).
CNBC ran aTV story that focused on lowprices, customer loyalty, and the “treasure hunt,” crediting Costco with reinventing shopping; the clip has more than 500,000 periodic views on YouTube (CNBC, 2013). The webmaster for addictedtocostco.com maintained her devotion to the store even after moving from Texas to the United Kingdom, despite a longer and initially scarier drive. Similar fanaticism was exempli!ed by two customers who held their engagement party at a local Costco. The story garnered national media attention.
Ritual As a symbolic act, ritual is routine that “usually has a stateable purpose, but one that invariably alludes to more than it says, and has many meanings at once” (Moore and Meyerhoff, 1977, p. 5). Enacting a ritual connects an individual or group to something
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mystical, more than words or rational thinking can capture. At home and at work, ritual gives structure and meaning to each day: “We !nd these magical moments every day— drinking our morning coffee, reading the daily paper, eating lunch with a friend, drinking a glass of wine while admiring the sunset, or saying, ‘Good night, sleep tight . . . ’ at bedtime. The holy in the daily; the sacred in the single act of living . . . A time to do the dishes. And a time to walk the dog” (Fulghum, 1995, pp. 3, 254).
Humans create both personal and communal rituals. The ones that carry meaning become the dance of life. “Rituals anchor us to a center,” Fulghum writes, “while freeing us to move on and confront the everlasting unpredictability of life. The paradox of ritual patterns and sacred habits is that they simultaneously serve as a solid footing and springboard, providing a stable dynamic in our lives” (1995, p. 261).
The power of ritual becomes palpable if one experiences the emptiness of losing it. Campbell (1988) underscores this loss: “When you lose rituals, you lose a sense of civilization; and that’s why society is so out of kilter.” As mentioned earlier, many Catholics lost their faith in the 1960s when the Roman Catholic Church changed its liturgy from Latin to vernacular. Later the Church reversed its earlier position and gave local priests permission to conduct the mass in Latin. Conversely, when the Catholic Church was hit later with a series of scandals involving sexual abuse of children and adolescents by priests, shaken laypersons turned to rituals of the mass for comfort and reassurance.
Rituals of initiation induct newcomers into communal membership. “Greenhorns” often encounter powerful cultural pressures as they join a group or organization. A new member must gain entry to the inner sanctum. Transitioning from stranger to full-“edged member grants access to cherished organizational secrets. The key episode is the rite of passage af!rming acceptance. In tribes, simply attaining puberty is insuf!cient for young males: “There must be an accompanying trial and appropriate ritual to mark the event. The so- called primitives had the good sense to make these trials meaningful and direct. Upon attaining puberty you killed a lion and were circumcised. After a little dancing and whatnot, you were admitted as a junior member and learned some secrets. The [men’s] hut is a symbol of, and a medium for maintaining, the status quo and the good of the order” (Ritti and Funkhouser, 1982, p. 3).
We are not beyond the primitive drives, sexism, and superstition that gave rise to age-old institutions such as the men’s hut. Consider the experience of a newly elected member of the U.S. Congress:
One of the early female novices was a representative who was a serious feminist. Soon after arriving in Congress, she broke propriety by audaciously
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proposing an amendment to a military bill of Edward Hebert, Chief of the Defense Clan. When the amendment received only a single vote, she supposedly snapped at the aged committee chairman: “I know the only reason my amendment failed is that I’ve got a vagina.” To which Hebert retorted, “If you’d been using your vagina instead of your mouth, maybe you’d have gotten a few more votes” (Weatherford, 1985, p. 35).
That exchange seems particularly harsh and offensive, but its multiple interpretations take us to the heart of symbolic customs. A kinder and gentler anecdote would blunt the power in a multilayered transaction with multiple meanings. Let’s look at some possible versions.
One version highlights the age-old battle between the sexes. The female representa- tive raises the specter of sexual discrimination; Hebert uses a sexist jibe to put her in her place. Another view sees the exchange as a classic give-and-take. Newcomers bring new ideas as agents of evolution and reform. Old-timers are supposed to pass along time- tested values and traditions. As an initiation ritual, the exchange is a predictable clash between a new arrival and an established veteran. The old-timer is reminding the rookie who’s in charge. Newcomers don’t get free admission. The price is higher for those who, because of race, gender, or ethnicity, question or threaten existing values, norms, or patterns. If newcomers succumb, an organization risks stulti!cation and decay; if old- timers fail to induct new arrivals properly, chaos and disarray lie ahead. Only a weak culture accepts newcomers without some form of testing, rite of passage, or “hazing.” The rite of passage reinforces the existing culture while testing the newcomer’s ability to become a member.