I think we underestimate the impact of symbolism in the workplace. I’m working on a longer post on this (which may, in turn, transform itself into a section of my master’s thesis — Go Zags), but for now I just want to poke at the general idea a little bit.
What I mean when I say everything means something is that almost everything we say, see, do, allow, prevent, facilitate, etc — it all tells everyone else in the organization something. It means something. There is some sort of meaning attached to it, and that meaning may or may not be what we intended it to be, if we even intended a message at all.
This is applies to soooo many different things in the workplace, but just for the sake of example, let’s take an appearance thing. When an executive wears a suit, what does that say to you? Well, it depends on who you are, doesn’t it? To you, it may simply mean that the executive enjoys dressing more formally for work, which of course is totally fine. Someone else may infer that it’s a symbol of the level and/or status the executive has achieved since they are able to afford such nice clothes. Still another might think it’s a power dynamic thing. Another might think it’s just an effort to impress people. There’s an infinite number of meanings someone could attach to an exec wearing a suit. The exec who donned the dapper attire? He or she may not have given it a second thought. Just threw something on.
Will all the assumptions folks make be fair? Well, no. But if you’re an exec in a suit (staying with our example), you need to be aware of what those are or might be. Think about what that suit says when put within the context of how you talk, act, lead, and treat others. All of those things start to come together like a mosaic to people; and again, the thing is that they can land all over the place on it. Some might think you’re an arrogant ass. Some might think you want to be noticed as an exec. Some might think you enjoy wearing several layers of clothing every day. Who knows. But it tells them something.
Now, imagine it’s not an exec wearing the suit. Imagine it’s a front-line employee. Well then we have a whole separate set of assumptions and meanings attached to that, don’t we? And as before, it will vary from person to person. Some may think the newbie just enjoys dressing up. Fair enough. Others might be convinced the newbie is more into sucking up. Why’s the new guy trying to dress like he’s some big shot? Everything means something.
You see the same dynamic at many churches, and of course it varies from church to church. In some places, the really good people wear coats and ties or appropriately-long dresses every week. If you don’t wear a coat and tie or the aforementioned dresses, you’re not quite as righteous. You’re probably a teensy-weensy bit more liberal (not like going-to-hell liberal; just whispered-about-behind-your-back liberal). Chances are that since you take a more casual approach to your appearance that also you take a more casual approach to God and spiritual life and don’t respect God. And if you wear jeans, oh man. You may as well just light yourself on fire and save hell the trouble. But it’s because everything means something, and it’s true in almost every context.
That’s why some parents obsess over their kidlets looking a certain way or having all the designer brand crap. In their mind, it’s often a status symbol. We have enough money that we can even buy our two-year-old expensive clothes that make him look like a tiny tennis player from Yale while holding the hand of this mother, whose sole hope in life is to qualify to be a “real” housewife of someplace. But you know why that happens? It’s likely because in their circles (of hell – hat tip to Dante), that means something. If your youngling is seen in off-brand attire, (or you have to purchase a used Maserati, etc) you’re probably in financial trouble.
Or we could talk tattoos. Those tend to mean things.
Clearly things mean things to these people. (I’m full of all sorts of brilliant insights today, yes? Things mean things? I mean, that’s some genius-level stuff right there.)
The same is true within organizations. Everything means something, from how we dress, to how we talk, to what our offices look like, to the hours we work, to how we do that work, and so on. And there’s no universal right or wrong on this one (simmer down, all you armchair philosophers; you Kant get all worked up about the phrasing there).
So what’s the point? The point is pretty simple. Just know that what you do means something. I’m not saying you have to cater to anybody or try to be everything to everybody (in fact, please don’t do that). But have the self-awareness to understand that even when you’re not saying something with words, you’re still telling your team something, because everything means something.