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Ritual in business: building a corporate culture through symbolic management.

Ritual in Business: Building a Corporate Culture Through Symbolic Management

Anthropologists have long had an interest in ritual behavior. It is not until the last two decades, however, that a widespread interest has developed in exploring the incidence of ritual in business organizations. As the international business community grew smaller and more competitive, a burgeoning interest developed to explore business cultures that seemed radically different and menacingly successful. In the early eighties, researchers showed particular curiosity in Japanese business cultures, dedicating much of their time to studying the values and rituals of companies in that country.

In March of 1989 we set out to study the relationship between an organization's culture and the ritual behavior found within its corporate walls. I hypothesized that companies use ritual as a way of expressing the values and identity of their culture. During a three month period, I studied the rites and ceremonies of three companies in East Tennessee. Eighteen interview subjects participated.

I first became interested in this topic after reading the extensive research of Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy which studied organizational culture in nearly 80 firms. Their exhaustive study found that companies which were high performers all had one thing in common: all were characterized as strong culture companies. A well-heeled culture appeared to be synonymous with successful management.

It would seem, however, that if a culture indeed exists, it must somehow manifest itself. Symbolism and ritual expression reduce complex, abstract ideals into things or actions which people can perceive and understand. It takes a lofty ideal such as "pride of membership" and, by way of a flag ceremony, taps into the most basic of human emotions. It is easier to develop emotional attachments (and other feelings) towards something one can see, hear, smell, or touch.

Ritual should not be confused with habit. Habits are meaningless things people do repetitively for convenience or efficiency. Ritual actions symbolize a significant belief or ideal. Taken together, they represent a body of values.

In order to appreciate the significance and usefulness of ritual in today's business world, it is necessary to look at its origins in human behavior. The earliest evidence of ritual behavior comes from Northern Iraq in the prehistoric graves of Neanderthal man.

In examining the human skeletons of people who lived forty to fifty thousand years ago, archeologist Ralph Solecki came across another discovery. An unusually high content of pollen from wild flowers was found in the soil of each grave. The connection was unavoidable: In the twilight of his civilization, mesolithic man recognized death as a significant event that merited special behavior. In what were probably the earliest such ceremonies, the deceased person was covered with flowers and laid to rest.

As the human species approached Neolithic times (the new Stone Age), we begin finding evidence of another form of ceremony, hunting rites. Perhaps the earliest form of religion or worship, cave paintings frequently show representations of speared animals, hunters on the prowl, or a ceremonial dance. The paintings suggest the interaction with "spirits" or perhaps a hunting god to petition a successful outing.

As part of the socialization process, humans also developed a perspective that recognized various stages of life. The importance of a person's transition from one stage to another became more and more pronounced as rites of passage became more significant. While each culture sees these life stages from a different view, birth, puberty, marriage, and death appear to be universally valued as important milestones. Anthropologists Morton and Martha Fried have noted that "no population ever visited by ethnographers or known in any detail to history, has ever lacked some observance of [these four transitions]."

Seven Business Rituals

Since the scope of this study is limited to business applications, the kinds of ritual researched was confined to only those which would occur in a work setting. Seven types of rites (found in business) were identified; each became a category of behavior for which interview subjects were tested. The research provided an abundance of insight into each of these practices.

Rites of Passage: Rites of passage allow a participant to traverse the gap between exclusion and acceptance. It is, at once, a symbolic cut with the past and the complete acceptance and marriage to the new. Brian Wicker, author of Ritual and Culture, identified three basic stages in this transformation: separation, internal revolution, and an ordeal from which the person emerges with his or her new identity. In America, examples of initiations which include difficult ordeals are more frequently seen in organizations with a military climate. The Japanese, however, appear to be more enthusiastic. One banking organization, for example, submits its management trainees to a grueling experience in which they must walk for 25 miles, beg for work among strangers, and perform Zen meditation exercises and military drills in a boot camp setting. If their attention wanes, the offender is hit with a paddle.

Examples cited by interview subjects included orientation programs that involve slide shows and plant tours, an introductory video advancing the company's values and ethics, and a ceremonial introduction to the company president. The hiring effort itself sometimes served as a rite of passage. Subjects reported a multi-stage interview process which seemed to go beyond what would be practical and necessary in order to determine competence.

Rites of Enhancement

Organizations publicly recognize the heroes of their culture for their good deeds. They do this through rites of enhancement. The accomplishment recognized can be as mundane as, for example, completing a typing assignment by the scheduled deadline or as significant as making a major technical discovery. Likewise, the amount of recognition varies accordingly.

One of our subject companies presents gold plaques to its top producers each month. Another firm's president (Intel) had the tradition of calling employees into his office and acknowledging their feats with a handful of M & M's candies.

Rites of Degradation

Rites of Degradation are used to discipline, demote, or to entirely liquidate the social identity and power of the subject. The process can be dissected into three stages:

* attention is brought to the transgressions made by the subject

* the behavior is discredited

* the degraded subject is, in some manner, reduced or disciplined.

One example cited involved the use of a formal counseling session in which the employee's deficiency is presented to him in writing. During this session, the offender acknowledges the infraction and responds on the same form.

Rites of Conflict Reduction

When a conflict between two parties becomes unmanageable, rites of conflict reduction can provide both groups with the will to find a resolution. The rite, by itself, will not make the differences go away, but, instead, changes the outlook of the participants from one of cynicism and distrust to one of optimism and constructiveness.

One interviewee described a procedure mandated upon two differing employees, if they could not reach agreement without intervention from a senior manager: each was required to write a detailed summary of the problems and the pros and cons of each proposed method. The summaries, considered a time-consuming and unpleasant task by most employees, did much to encourage accord and reduce conflict.

Rites of Integration

As the name implies, rites of integration bring together employees within an organization. Be it through a company picnic, a baseball game, or a trip down the river, the idea of such an event is to cut across formal status among employees and create an environment where everyone socializes and enjoys themselves as a single family.

The most successful of these events are those that distract the participants to such an extent that they forget about differences in cultural background,

company hierarchy, and age. An instance given which would illustrate such an event is the "Olympic games" held by one subject company each year. The event features a variety of games and sports in which all employees get a chance to get involved. Remarked one individual: "It gives us all a chance to be silly without having to worry about screwing something up."

Rites of Renewal

Rites of renewal are concerned with restoring and re-vitalizing existing social structures. The nature of these activities is generally conservative rather than creative or innovative. Examples would be an employee assistance program, a retreat held to discuss work-related issues, team-building, or an activity directed at improving the morale of a lackluster department.

The most frequently mentioned illustration for this type of rite involved the use of quality circles. This activity is seen as a means to renew the company's commitment to quality in every step of the manufacturing process. During these sessions, employees brainstorm, arrive at consensus suggestions, and re-affirm the importance of quality.

Style Rites

Marvin Bower who, prior to authoring The Will to Manage, was managing director of McKinsey & Company, calls it "the way we do things around here." In this article, it is referred to as "style." This ceremonial system is perhaps the most pervasive of all since it sets the tone for how people dress, communicate with one another, socialize with other employees, and even how they decorate their office. More than any other, this type of ritual defines the feel of an enterprise.

While there was no written dress code in two of the three companies surveyed, and no officially articulated company style in any, a distinct pattern revealed itself very quickly. Employees of a company that manufactures expensive motor boats are all young, informal, and physically fit. Polo shirts and casual slacks are worn by nearly every male. Bright colors are favored over grays and dark tones. Haircuts are very similar. Protocol in communication is flexible: employees are all on a first-name basis; phone calls are more prevalent than one-page memos. Meetings are generally arranged in a round-table setting.

The style described above probably contrasts heavily with a typical conservative financial enterprise. In such an environment, we would likely find that dress is traditional and appropriate to rank. The same attention to formality would predictably be found in seating arrangements, daily planning, and the general interaction among staff members.

Survey Results

Measuring the responses of all survey participants produced two important findings: 1) All three organizations revealed a level of ritual behavior that was significant or higher. 2) Every individual interview subject also measured significant or higher. In addition to these quantitative findings, another factor was brought conspicuously to light. Employees' behavior within each company culture was very cohesive. Apparently, workers not only engaged in ceremonial expression, but they did so in the same way. They shared common values and manifested these ideals using similar rites with similar frequency.

In an organization, for example, that has a strong tradition of loyalty, fellow employees are considered to be a second family. In such a firm, rites of integration (e.g. organized social events) are part of everyone's behavior.

In the case of our subject company which manufactures a glamorous product (expensive recreational boats), style is paramount. People in the organization appear to value the flair and cachet of their business. Consequently, rites of style are prominent. Employees tend to dress and groom themselves in a manner distinctive to that corporate culture.

The third company may be used to typify an organization which values aggressive, sales-oriented behavior. Not surprising, elaborate rites of enhancement, used to stimulate and reward competition, are an important part of this group.

Managing Ritual

In studying the employees of three organizations in East Tennessee, I documented and analyzed the way people manifest culture through ceremony. Without ritual to express them, important ideals have no impact. Without solid values, however, ritual expression is meaningless. Both must be present in order to create a strong organizational culture.

In order to develop a well-heeled culture, top managers must have a clear set of values of how their business is to be operated. They must have a genuine resolve to shape and develop these principles, and they must have an energetic commitment to integrate every employee into this value system. Inconsistencies must be carefully avoided lest they begin to erode the integrity of the culture.

Symbolic managers, as they are sometimes called, recognize the significance of symbolic action. They see every meeting, office encounter, luncheon, or memorandum as an opportunity to reinforce the "ways" of the company. The more consistent and genuine such leadership is, the greater its impact. The more pervasive the ritual tradition, the stronger the culture and values of the group. In such a "strong culture" organization, this tradition not only influences major ceremonial events such as retirement dinners and awards banquets; it also sets the tone for how employees dress, their manner of speech, their style of writing, socializing, and greeting.

Previous research has shown us the powerful correlation between successful organizations and strong culture. An understanding by business of how values are expressed, how a culture is molded, how ideas are given meaning and life --an awareness of these things can offer a valuable management tool. Effectively used, this tool can be utilized to galvanize an organization into a solid body of common purpose and commitment.

Christian Lange is a freelance writer and photographer who specializes in anthropological studies. He currently resides in Knoxville, Tennessee where he recently completed a business degree at Tusculum College.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Lange, Christian
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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