Re-writing Context Through Symbolic Action
When Nelson Mandela, dressed in the then-infamous Springboks uniform, presented the Rugby World Cup to South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar in 1995 he was executing on a masterful leadership challenge: to rewrite the social context for an entire nation. As John Carlin puts it in the Telegraph, “Mandela set himself the mission of converting black South Africans to the perplexing notion that ‘the Boks belonged to all of us now’.” Mandela managed to unite a country around a sport that until then was highly divisive.
The entire event — and especially Mandela’s embracing of the Springboks colors — was an example of symbolic action: a defining event, orchestrated by a leader, to rewrite the context of current events and help followers move with renewed energy in a specific direction.
You don’t have to be leading a nation through social revolution to use symbolic action. It’s an effective leadership behavior whether you’re trying to help your team refocus after a painful reorganization, shake up a culture of entitlement and status quo or inspire Herculean efforts on an important project. You do, however, have to be purposeful in your approach. Otherwise your actions will come off as merely a token gesture or worse, sugar-coated spin.
The purposeful nature of symbolic action also differentiates it from day-to-day role modeling. Leaders should always lead by example, but symbolic action is situation-specific:
- 1. You need to observe what’s happening. Are people engaged and productive? How are they reacting to change messages? What rumors are circulating about the future? What’s the current mood and morale? What is being said or not said in the hallways
- 2. You need to be clear on the alternate reality you want people to commit to. What is the organization’s agenda? What business imperatives need to shape employee priorities? What do you need people to do differently
- 3. Only then can you begin to rewrite the context of the situation. What action can you take to inspire others to follow your lead and commit to take action themselves?
In working with leaders around the world we have had the opportunity to coach many managers at all levels on how to deploy and hone authentic leadership practices. Here are two examples of the effective use of symbolic action to inspire employee engagement and heightened performance.
Case 1: Turning a delayed product launch into a sales opportunity
Consider a high-tech instrumentation company where a new version of their flagship software was behind schedule. Clients were grumbling about the delay. Word was spreading that the new version would not have the features that clients wanted. The sales force was demotivated before they even saw the final product. They thought that management was aloof and unconcerned.
When the head of sales sensed the prevailing mood in the field, he knew he needed to rewrite the context for the entire sales force and customer support team.
- The alternate reality he wanted to communicate: This is not a failure, it is an exciting new release of software that is ahead of the competition, with many features that customers appreciate.
- His symbolic action: He visited key members of the client advisory board — those who had apparently expressed doubts. He personally handled the pitch for the upgrade. He also debriefed his conversations with the sales force, sharing positive client comments and observations of the software’s market superiority.
- The result: Convinced by the confidence of their leader and the reaction of important clients, the sales force managed their angst over development delays and focused with renewed energy on engaging their accounts on the merits of this new software.
Case 2: Embracing new ownership
Following a product acquisition, 600 employees at a Spanish engineering and manufacturing site transitioned from one large corporate owner to another. Most employees dreaded the move since they had been in direct competition with the firm that was now their employer. They feared changes in work conditions, culture clashes and layoffs.
Having read the reticence and the concerns of the staff, the leader — in this case the head of the business unit being acquired — decided to help them all embrace their new employer. He coordinated a number of key activities including a site visit by the new French CEO and presentations in the foyer to illustrate where this business unit fit in to the overall organizational portfolio. And, with 20 years’ tenure he knew he had to visibly move forward to embrace the new reality.
- The alternate reality he wanted to communicate: We need to quickly embrace the new ownership. This is not a threat, but an opportunity for this division. We are one organization now.
- His symbolic action: The leader held a town hall meeting at which he threw out all the employer-branded materials that he had personally acquired from the old firm into a large dumpster. He also encouraged all the other employees to help fill the dumpster over the next few days.
- The result: The leader’s actions, combined with effective communication at all levels, reassured the staff on several levels — that they were an important acquisition, that the new CEO saw specific value in their group, that their future careers held promise. While some of the more tenured employees took time to come around to the new ownership, the visible steps taken by the leader helped the entire staff to get back to running an efficient and productive business unit.
Ultimately though, your followers will determine whether your symbolic action actually is meaningful. If you haven’t successfully sensed the situation, your actions won’t be relevant. When you approach symbolic action thoughtfully, in response to a specific situation, you can effectively help people refocus, re-energize and move forward with organizational change. It requires a blend of candor and optimism as well as authenticity on your part as a leader. A delicate balance perhaps, but worth the effort.
That’s because effective leaders are not passive recipients of context. Rather, they work with their followers to rewrite the context and construct an alternate reality. They transform the situation rather than merely reacting to it.