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Corporate Culture as Symbolic Interaction

management, business, corporate culture, symbolic interactions in organizations, corporate excellence

An amalgam of culture as shared norms and values, myths and stories, and rites and ceremonials is achieved by looking at organizations in terms of symbolic interaction. From this perspective, managers provide explanations, rationalizations, and legitimating for the activities of the organization. For managers to evangelize, there must be shared norms and values, which are manifested in the myths and stories, rites and ceremonials.

The task of management, then, is to help organizational participants arrive at shared norms and values or the shared paradigm of what the organization is all about. Its task is also to manage the social definition of the organization. Finally, its task is to break paradigms when they become dysfunctional. Managers invest an activity with significance by spending their own time on it or by changing the work environment to better accommodate it. By interpreting history, managers can help shape workers' perceptions of an event or problem, using what then becomes a common view of the situation as a vehicle for consensus on the next steps to be taken. The other actions bear more discussion.

The well-known "Hawthorne effect" is also important in this perspective. It refers to the finding that people who are subjected to observation, change, and special treatment may respond with better performance regardless of the content of the observation, change, or treatment. Observation and change signal that people are to be treated differently. This expectation results in increased motivation.
Symbolic actions may also be used to mollify dissatisfied groups in organizations. For example, universities establish ombudsmen to handle student complaints about issues ranging from grades to sexual harassment, and privilege and tenure committees to protect professors from administrative capriciousness. IBM, among many other corporations, has open-door and speak-up programs to do the same thing. The aggrieved groups are mollified by the appearance of an administrative structure to deal with the problem, regardless of whether anything is done.

In manipulating symbols, managers can effect change simply by creating patterns of activity and staging the occasions for interaction. This activity may be a far more effective and common way to obtain change than any other we usually think about. On the other hand, managers must be cautious not to manipulate symbols without providing any content. Promising an open-door policy without delivering openness or access, or pledging to involve employees in decision making without doing so, can backfire by alienating workers.

One way a manager can better understand the culture of his own organization is to examine the language and symbols within it. The language used in annual reports, for instance, reveals some facets of an organization's culture. At McDonald's, for instance, the corporate creed is "quality, service, cleanliness, and value."

The symbolic approach to culture is particularly visible in organizations in which reliability rather than productivity is the bottom line because the costs of error can be catastrophic. Examples are nuclear power plants, air traffic control systems, and complex weapons systems. A major aspect of these organizations is requisite variety, in which the complexities of the system and its operators must match the complexity required by the technology. High accountability and simultaneous centralization and flexibility are also part of the culture of these organizations.
Published: 2007-04-21
Author: Martin Hahn

About the author or the publisher
Martin Hahn PhD has received his education and degrees in Europe in organizational/industrial sociology. He grew up in South-East Asia and moved to Europe to get his tertiary education and gain experience in the fields of scientific research, radio journalism, and management consulting.

After living in Europe for 12 years, he moved to South-East again and has worked for the last 12 years as a management consultant, university lecturer, corporate trainer, and international school administrator

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