There was a Governor in the State of Wisconsin who always wore a red vest. Everywhere.
Candidates running for political office are constantly seen with flags in the background.
Some presidents land on ships and declare “mission accomplished.”
All of these things are symbols and are meant to portray something more than the symbol itself. The red vest represented Wisconsin, the flags represent patriotism, and a sign saying “mission accomplished” has become the symbol of a failed mission.
Yet, in business, not a lot of symbols are used by individual contributors or management. Brands and logos (like the new Cube Rules logo) are symbols, of course, but they are abstract or something you sell.
But symbols are powerful tools to align people to a mission. They serve to remind people of the greater mission their work is tied to outside of our cube.
The Black Suit
I’ve only had one manager who used symbols and it wasn’t patriotic nor rising above our work. It was the “black suit.”
He never wore suits, so wearing one was going to be different in any case. But the black suit meant that he was coming to lay you off or fire you. You knew that if you walked into that door and he was wearing the black suit that it was all over for you.
That’s not a bad thing. Seeing the black suit already moved you past the “what’s going on” mode. There was no waiting to learn the answer; you knew the answer as soon as you saw the suit. The rest was details.
The Calendar Invite
Many companies have lay off processes that they follow and there is much symbolism in them as well. For me, it was getting the calendar appointment with a manager two levels above me that had the bland topic that I had never been told to prepare for. Once I got the appointment — the same one many others got as well — I knew it was all over. It was just going to be over in a couple of hours officially, but I already knew.
Unfortunately, in business, I only know symbols that represent the end of your employment! Are there any positive symbols out there that can be pointed to as a way to keep doing focused work?