Team Rituals and Symbols

I’m studying The Power of Team Culture on Coursera. These are my revision notes for week 4.

Burning the American Flag

  • How do teams tap into emotions? Symbols and rituals!
  • For example at U Penn: Carolyn Marvin (associate professor at U) burned a flag
    • This was a previously illegal activity
    • Intended to allow the students to fully appreciate the meaning of free speech.
    • Background:
      • Pledge of allegiance recited every morning in American schools: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America…”
      • Burning the flag seems to go against the pledge
    • Student tried to take the flag away from Marvin, because the student felt it was was unconscionable.
    • One student: “I was infuriated”
    • Calls for lecturerer to be fired
    • Penn State Congress voted to condemn the lecturer nearly unanimously
  • It flag is a symbol and emblem of American culture, of “We the people”
  • It has the ability of the flag to stir powerful feelings

Team Mascots

  • 6 marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima – very serious stuff!
  • Mascots: emblems of a team, for the team. A light side to things
  • Lighter side: team mascots
  • Examples:
    • e.g. Panther mascot (American football team)
    • e.g. Knight
  • Army versus Navy football
    • Army: mule mascot
    • Navy: goat mascot
    • In 1991, navy personnel stole the Army’s mule mascot
    • Helicopters and federal marshals were called
    • Army commander claimed control, and sent the marshalls away

The Concept of the Symbol

  • Symbol: a something that stands for something else (something can be an object, a behaviour, a word, an idea, etc)
  • We access object or meaning through symbols (we don’t have direct access to objects or meaning)
  • Symbols are not just about understanding the world, they are also about getting people to respond to them in particular ways.
    • e.g. the radiation symbol makes you take precautions
  • Two types of symbols:
    • Referential symbol: stands for something known to consciousness (e.g. “cat”)
    • Condensation symbol: evokes affect or feeling, without any necessary awareness or consciousness of why. A mascot may get us excited, but we don’t necessarily know why or how. These are particularly important to team culture

Transference of Affective Quality

  • Symbols have dual aspects
    • they represent the group
    • the also call up feelings about it
  • Dominant symbols do those two things at once
  • Transference of affective quality: the summoning of emotions in order to transfer those emotions on to an idea of the group
  • Transference occurs during the deployment of the symbols
  • Example of a dominant symbol:
    • Ndembu hornpod tree
    • Exudes a milky sap when the bark is cut
    • This can be associated with breastfeeding
    • Which can call up positive feelings of connectedness
    • Symbols is deployed when girls are married, and moving away from their parents
  • All domininant symbols have 2 poles:
    • Sensory pole (feelings, emotions)
    • Ideological pole (norms, values, etc)
  • American flag is another example of a dominant symbol

The Motivational Video

  • Rituals are just very complex symbols
  • Harley Davidson motivational video
  • For a certain segment of americans, it called up very positive feelings (though not all americans)
  • People from other cultural backgrounds, it actually produced a negative response
    • e.g. Japanese woman who feared that the people in the video might be racist.
  • Video was made during a period of major internal strife. It was made to call up positive feelings for the company

People as Symbols

  • Can people become condensation symbols?
  • Historical figure: e.g. George Washington
  • Washington: dominant symbol?
    • Often called the father of the country
    • Regarded as a strong, guiding presence during uncertain and scary times
    • He guided the fledgeling republic during the early days
    • He took on assocations, especially over time
  • Other examples of dominant symbols:
    • Mahatma Ghandi in India
    • Mao Tse Tung in China
    • Steve Jobs in Apple
  • Power of culture radiating from a visionary individual
  • Even a team leader can be a condensation symbol for a team

The Pragmatics of Motivational Speech

  • Meaning of words:
    • overt (semantic) meaning
    • covert (pragmatic) meaning
  • e.g. Enron code of ethics
    • overt: honesty
    • covert: criminal fraud
  • Words can function as condensation symbols
  • Aragorn’s speech to his men (“but it is not this day”)
    • Like poetry
    • Two parts (parallel) plus a coda
    • Rising intonation
    • Transformation into coda
    • All help in calling up emotions
  • Knute Rockne’s speech
    • We’re going to run inside ’em, and outside ’em, …

Symbolic Meaning of Stories

  • Stories that are told within teams are often examples of condensation symbols
  • Story from a company:
    • Company had annual holiday party
    • New employee at party
    • Waiter walked past carrying plate of sushi, and he picked a piece off
    • Security took employee arrived and took him outside, and explained that the sushi was only available for the CEO
    • Story would put an edge of fear to new starters
  • Better be careful: what are the do’s and don’t of this company?
  • Story acts as a dominant symbol in this respect

Instrumental Symbols: The Gavel

  • Not all symbols are dominant
  • Instrumental symbols are ones used to accomplish a specific goal.
  • Rapping the gavel has the purpose of indicating that a bid is closed
  • Or that proceedings are opened or concluded
  • The gavel is instrumental: it is doing something specific
  • However, there is more…
  • The gavel has become a symbol for authority in various contexts
  • Example of story of Greg using a gavel to control a meeting better
  • Effective instrumental symbol as part of the ritual part of the faculty meeting

Individual and Collective Rituals

  • Rafael Nadal’s superstitious rituals
    • 2 water bottles
    • This is symbolic rituals for Nadal
  • Businesses as teams develop various invented rituals
  • These don’t always seem like rituals
  • Walmart cheer.
    • Call and response pattern
    • Owner got idea from Korean manufacturer
  • Nadal’s and Walmart’s rituals are both condensation symbols

Types of Rituals in Business

  • Every business has its rituals
  • Many of these rituals are just seen as “doing business”
  • American “right to fire” versus Japanese “teamwork”
  • Redundancies (firings) – it’s amazing how fast news of a round of redundancies spreads
  • Firing is designed to help motivate the (remaining) team to achieve their goals (fear as a motivator)

Initiation, Enhancement, and Group Worship

  • Initiation rite (on-boarding)
    • introduce new employees to the team culture that they will need to acquire to function as part of the team
    • act as a condensation symbol to get the initiates to feel that they have crossed a threshold, become a new person and a team member
  • Awards ceremony
    • individuals or teams get recognised for their achievements
    • has effect on other members of the group
  • Annual holiday party
    • the group worships itself
    • related to totemic rites
    • collective effervescence
    • good feelings get called up, and transferred to the group

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