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Management: perspective and practice
Management: perspective and practice

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3.4 Culture as symbols

Another way to look at culture is through the symbols in which culture is manifest. Some symbols are obvious, some less so. The obvious or ‘high-profile’ symbols are those designed to create an external image: the mission statement, the logo, the annual report, the corporate dress code, the head office architecture.

The ‘low-profile’ symbols are those less tangible manifestations of what actually goes on inside an organisation in order to get work done. The two do not always match up. For example, at the height of its safety problems in early 2010, Toyota, the world’s largest car manufacturer, was severely criticised: ‘This system of quality control that Toyota represents to be at the heart of their corporation, doesn’t reflect reality’; the source of the trouble was blamed on a ‘Toyota culture which teaches that these are issues that should not be aired in public’ with the company being ‘at times more concerned with profit than with customer safety’ (The Independent, 25 February 2010). These comments point to a case where the low-profile symbols had became visible to the public and conflicted with the high-profile symbols to disastrous effect.

Low-profile symbols were studied by Trice and Beyer (1984), who suggest that they can be divided into four categories: practices, communications, physical forms and a common language.

  • Practices – These are the rites, rituals and ceremonies of the organisation, and they take many forms – rituals for making tea or coffee; department or work group outings for meals or drinks; the annual office party; the doctor’s ‘rounds’ in a hospital ward; the award night for ‘salesperson of the year’; the visit of the director to a regional office; long-service award ceremonies, etc. Does your organisation or one that you know well carry out some of these practices?
  • Communications – These are the stories, myths, sagas, legends, folk tales, symbols and slogans that are circulated in organisations. These stories are told and retold by members of the organisation and come to influence behaviour. These myths and legends illustrate the preferred way of performing and become goals to aim for.
  • Physical forms – Low-profile symbols of an organisation’s culture manifest themselves in many physical ways. Examples include the appearance and location of the building; open plan or individual offices; posters or art work on walls; a single restaurant or an office canteen for most employees, with a separate dining room for managers; suits or casual attire; provision and distribution of flipcharts or whiteboards; the furniture (and again whether the type/luxuriousness of the furniture depends on a person’s grade).
  • A common language – Jargon is common to many organisations. It is a convenient shorthand form of communication, but it also affects behaviour. McDonald’s refers to its restaurant staff as ‘crew members’ and Disney employees are ‘cast members’. These terms give added meaning to working at these places. The emphasis is on being part of a team – recruits may feel ‘outsiders’ until they have learned the language. However, this language is intended to affect the way the people respond to their work.

Here are some examples of organisational symbols:

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Figure 13 The famous ‘golden arches’ logo at a McDonald’s restaurant
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Figure 14 Inside Google’s China office
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Figure 15 Arsenal Football Club’s stadium in London, UK

From a consideration of Schein’s levels of culture and the definitions, metaphors and symbols examined above, you should now be gaining a clearer idea of what tends to be encompassed by the idea of ‘culture’.