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Understanding Corporate Myths and Symbols: How Do You Perceive Them?

October 24, 2010
Updated June 17, 2015

Trans America Tower, San Francisco

I’ve talked about corporate climate and culture in past posts, Do You Know the Difference Between Corporate Culture and Climate? and The Smell of the Place.

Today I want to look at two major obstacles to changing corporate culture: myths and symbols. Myths, especially with organizations that have been around for a long time, impede the ability of people to understand what’s occurring in the workplace and the context in which it exists. In particular, myths distort the lens through which we see our world, which in turn can significantly affect how we interact with others and how we adapt to change. For example, we may react to change through emotion, thus making it that much harder to see reality.

When organizations enter a period of turbulent change (such as what we’ve been going through since the financial meltdown and the onset of the Great Recession) myths have a profound effect on our behavior as a consequence of our becoming more anxious. This may manifest itself in such behaviors as hoarding information at work, distrusting co-workers and (especially) management, and resisting reorganizations and new approaches to work. These behaviors are carried through to weakened service to clients and citizens.

As an organization’s culture begins to change, its old myths are challenged and new ones are created. One result is a clash of myths as the old guard attempts to fight off the new ideas and approaches that new employees bring with them. What’s striking about this dynamic process is that it takes place at the most unconscious level. Furthermore, established myths cloud management’s perspective and vision, which comes at a critical time when these senior leaders should be thinking of the organization’s future and to where they should be focusing their attention.

Here are seven questions on which to reflect and consider for your unique workplace issues and context:

1. Where do senior executives focus their attention? What symbols and myths do they value?

2. Is what senior management says as a collective aligned with its daily actions?

3. How are employees recognized and valued?

4. Is exceeding clients’ and customers’ needs and wants the focus of the organization?

5. When major mistakes occur does management seek out scapegoats, or does it assume responsibility and learn from them?

6. Are the organization’s rules and policies gospel, or is their flexibility to how they’re implemented?

7. How is work actually done in the organization?

There has been WAY too much hype over the years from leadership gurus, CEOs, senior executives, etc. who have espoused feel-good platitudes about how important employees are and that they’re an organization’s most valuable asset. Indeed, if employees are to regain their trust of those who lead organizations, especially as a result of the Great Recession, a huge amount of work is needed to begin the healing process. And as part of this, a vital aspect will be to jettison those symbols and myths that impede the engagement of employees, that undermine trust and credibility, and that redirect the organization’s attention to non-productive ends.

If you haven’t already, read my post on Lincoln Electric for a true story on how a 100-plus year old Cleveland-based manufacturing company has remained a world leader by remaining focused on its customers, treating employees fairly and remunerating them exceptionally well.

We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the Secret sits in the center and knows.
(Robert Frost)

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