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The symbolic frame focuses on how myth and symbols help humans make sense of the chaotic, ambiguous world in which they live. Meaning, belief, and faith are its central concerns. Meaning is not given to us; we create it. There are, for example, many who revere the American “ag and many others who burn it. The “ag is symbolically powerful for both groups but for different reasons. It represents patriotism for one group, oppression or imperialism for the other. Symbols are the basic materials of the meaning systems, or cultures, we inhabit. Leaders are bricoleurs, people who survey and use the materials at hand to help construct meaning systems. We experience our way of life in the same way that !sh live in water. Many contemporary leaders highlight the critical role culture plays in organizations:

• Lou Gerstner (IBM): “I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture is not just one aspect of the game—it is the game.”

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• Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

• Jim Sinegal (Costco): “What else have we got besides stories? It’s what brings meaning to the work we do.”

• Howard Schultz (Starbucks): “A company can grow big without losing the passion and personality that built it, but only if it’s driven not by pro!ts but by values and people.”

• John Mackey (Whole Foods): “Culture is no less than ‘how we do things around here.’ Less tangible than other physical assets on a company balance sheet, it is nonetheless the most valuable asset a company has—for it stitches people together in common beliefs, values and purpose and represents the basis for authenticity of experience for both team members and customers.”

Chapter 12 explores the many forms cultural symbols take in social life, including myth, vision, story, heroes and heroines, ritual, and ceremony. It then uses a variety of examples to demonstrate what culture is and why it is so important.

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In Chapter 13, we apply symbolic concepts to team dynamics. We use a detailed case of a legendary and highly successful computer development team to show that the essence of its success was cultural and spiritual. The team relied on initiation rituals, humor, play, specialized language, ceremony, and other symbolic forms to weld a diverse and fractious group of individuals into a spirited, successful team.

Chapter 14 highlights dramaturgical and institutional perspectives, viewing organiza- tions as akin to theater companies seeking recognition and support by staging dramas that both please and in”uence their audiences. We show that many activities and processes in organizations—such as evaluation and strategic planning—rarely achieve their supposed goals. Yet they persist, because they convey vital symbolic messages that internal and external audiences yearn for.

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12 c h a p t e r

Organizational Symbols and Culture

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.

—Marcus Garvey

For 800 years, neighborhoods in Siena, Italy, have competed twice each summer in a horse race known as the palio. Each side has its club, hymn,

costumes, museum, and elected head. A crowd of more than 100,000 gathers to witness a 75-second event that people live for throughout the year. Riding under banners of the goose, seashell, or turtle, jockeys attack one another with whips and hang on desperately around 90-degree turns. The !rst horse to !nish, with or without rider, wins. “The winners are worshipped. The losers embarrass their clan” (Saubaber, 2007, p. 42).

In July 2007, 22-year-old Giovanni Atzeni won the race in a photo !nish. His followers were ecstatic. A young woman shouted, “We’ve waited 10 years,” as she showered him with kisses. An old man almost fainted with joy at the chance to see a victory before he died. The legendary Aceto, a 14-time winner, once said, “Palio is a drug that makes you a God . . . and then cruci!es you.” The rest of Italy considers the event barbaric, but locals are proudly unfazed. Unless you were born in Siena, they insist, you will never understand the palio.


Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal. ! 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.



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Rooted in a time when Siena was a proud and powerful republic, the occasion embodies the town’s unique identity.

Building distinctive identity or community around a brand name in business updates ancient traditions based on tribe and homeland, like those surrounding the palio. Consider the characteristics of a unique modern business: Carnival-like zaniness. Free food and vending machines. Corporate values placing a premium on delivering “wow” and “creating fun and weirdness” (Heath!eld, 2012). New recruits offered shots of vodka during hiring interviews and offered $2,000 to quit after their !rst round of training (Chafkin, 2009).

The 95 percent who turn down the $2,000 graduate in full ceremony to “Pomp and Circumstance” in front of families and members of their new, nontraditional departments: “Each department has its own décor, ranging from the rain forest–themed to Elvis-themed, and employees are encouraged to decorate their work spaces . . .” (Rogers-Kante, 2011.)

Employees carrying cowbells and noisemakers lead spontaneous of!ce parades in costume (Frei, Ely, and Winig, 2010). Departments sponsor cookouts and other fun events throughout the year. Managers are required to spend 10 to 20 percent of their hours “goo!ng off”with employees. Managers and employees are encouraged to fraternize outside normal of!ce hours. Three big company events—a summer picnic, a January party at the Boss’s home, and a vendor party—!ll out the year’s cycle of fun and happiness.

Welcome to Zappos, CEO Tony Hsieh’s “Culture of Happiness” (introduced in Chapter 3). All the merriment and spirit captures the hearts of the company’s employees. But it also pays off in employee satisfaction and business results. Hsieh credits the company’s phenomenal success to its distinctive culture with carnival-like zaniness that bears some resemblance to Siena’s palio.

Zappos and the palio are two examples of how symbols permeate every!ber of society and organizations. “A symbol is something that stands for or suggests something else; it conveys socially constructed meanings beyond its intrinsic or obvious functional use” (Zott and Huy, 2007, p. 72). Distilled to the essence, people seek meaning in life. Because life is mysterious, symbols arise to sustain hope, belief, and faith. They express themselves in analogies. Symbols aremetaphoric expression of psychic energy. Their content is far from obvious; it is expressed in unique and individual ways while embodying universal and collective imagery (Ghareman, 2016). These intangibles then shape our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Symbols cut deeply into the human psyche and tap the collective unconscious (Jung, [1912] 1965).

Symbols are basic elements of culture that pop up to !t unique circumstances. Symbols and symbolic actions are part of everyday life and are particularly perceptible at weekly, monthly, or seasonal high points. Symbols stimulate energy in moments of triumph and offer solace in times of tribulation. After 9/11, Americans relied on symbols to cope with the

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aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack. Flags “ew. Makeshift monuments honored victims and the heroic acts of police and !re!ghters who gave their lives. Members of Congress sang “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps. Across the country, people gathered in both formal and informal healing ceremonies.

A comparably intense expression of shock, grief, and compassion came in the wake of the senseless 2012 shootings of 20 young schoolchildren and their adult caretakers at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut. Mourners from all over the nation sent “owers and toys, which were piled up in huge mounds in front of the school. Memorials of white angels appeared across the country. President Obama shed a tear in his nationally televised speech. It was another example of the spiritual magic that symbols represent.

The symbolic frame interprets and illuminates the basic issues of meaning and belief that make symbols so potent. It depicts a world distinct from popular canons of rationality, certainty, and linearity. This chapter journeys into the symbolic inner sanctum. We discuss symbolic assumptions and highlight various forms that symbols take in human organiza- tions. We then move on to discuss organizations as cultures or tribes. Finally, we describe how two distinctive companies—BMW and Nordstrom department stores—have success- fully applied symbolic ideas.

SYMBOLIC ASSUMPTIONS The symbolic frame forms an umbrella for ideas from several disciplines, including organization theory and sociology (Selznick, 1957; Blumer, 1969; Schutz, 1967; Clark, 1975; Corwin, 1976; Hatch and Cunliffe, 2013; March and Olsen, 1976; Maitlis and Christianson, 2014; Meyer and Rowan, 1978; Weick, 1976; Davis et al., 1976; Hofstede, 1984), political science (Dittmer 1977; Edelman, 1971), magic (O’Keefe, 1983), and neurolinguistic programming (Bandler and Grinder, 1975).

Jung relied heavily on symbolic concepts to probe the human psyche and unconscious archetypes. Anthropologists have traditionally focused on symbols and their place in the lives ofhumans (Mead, 1928, 1935;Benedict, 1934;Goffman, 1974;Ortner, 1973; Bateson, 1972). In the early 1980s, business books began to apply cultural ideas to corporations, health care, and nonpro!t enterprises (Deal and Kennedy, 1982; Peters and Waterman, 1982; Schein, 1992).

The symbolic frame distills ideas from diverse sources into !ve suppositions:

• What is most important is not what happens but what it means.

• Activity and meaning are loosely coupled; events and actions have multiple interpreta- tions as people experience situations differently.

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• In the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, symbols arise to help people resolve confusion, !nd direction, and anchor hope and faith.

• Events and processes are often more important for what they express or signal than for their intent or outcomes. Their emblematic form weaves a tapestry of secular myths, heroes and heroines, rituals, ceremonies, and stories to help people !nd purpose and passion.

• Culture forms the superglue that bonds an organization, unites people, and helps an enterprise to accomplish desired ends.

The symbolic frame sees life as allegorical, mystical, and more serendipitous than linear. Organizations are like constantly changing organic pinball machines. Issues, actors, decisions, and policies carom through an elastic labyrinth of cushions, barriers, and traps. Managers turning to Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive (1967) might do better to seek advice from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. But apparent chaos has an underlying pattern and an emblematic order increasingly appreciated in corporate life (Kotter and Heskett, 1992).

ORGANIZATIONAL SYMBOLS An organization’s culture is revealed and communicated through its symbols: GEICO’s gecko, Target’s bullseye, Airbnb’s Bélo or A”ac’s duck. McDonald’s franchises are uni!ed as much by golden arches, core values, and the legend of Ray Kroc as by sophisticated control systems. Harvard professors are bound less by structural constraints than by rituals of teaching, values of scholarship, and the myths andmystique of Harvard. Symbols take many forms in organizations. Myth, vision, and values imbue an organization with deep purpose and resolve. The words and deeds of heroes and heroines serve as icons or logos for others to admire or emulate. Fairy tales and stories tender explanations, reconcile contradictions, and resolve dilemmas (Cohen, 1969). Rituals and ceremonies offer direction, faith, and hope (Ortner, 1973). Metaphor, humor, and play loosen things up and form communal bonds (Lewin, 1998; Romero and Cruthirds, 2006; Statler and Roos, 2007).We look at each of these symbolic forms in the following sections.

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