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The Confederate Flag and Corporate Culture

July 2, 2015

Heritage – not hate.

The creator of the confederate flag, Thompson, wrote that flag would "be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN'S FLAG."

So which is it?  Probably both and other meanings as well.  For some, the meaning reflects the desire to succeed from the United States.  And I am sure there are people out there that just think it represents Bo and Luke Duke.  The meaning depends on who is looking at it at the time. 

Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen a significant and emotional response to the Confederate flag.  Why is that and what does that have to do with Corporate America?

The flag is more than a flag.  It serves as a symbol.  Symbols, stories, and rituals are what define a culture.  The same holds true for Corporate America.  The stories shared in the hallways and by ex-employees are far more real than the values posted on any wall. 

Sometimes symbols, stories and rituals form purposely.  Leaders utilize them to create excitement and purpose; to give direction.  When leaders are out in front, these tools of culture can be powerful.  For example, when I go to a St. Jude conference or event, the stories told about the Founder, Danny Thomas, are amazing.  The stories have been kept alive all of these years.  St. Jude breathes new life into them by sharing new stories that reinforce Danny Thomas’ vision. Another example is Nike. Nike has the most iconic symbol around.  Initially inspired by the Greek goddess of victory, the Nike Swoosh is meant to reflect movement and speed.  Nordstrom still celebrates the tale of a customer who brought in tires to return to the store even though Nordstrom does not sell tires because it reflects their service culture. 

Symbols, rituals, and stories take on different meanings than intended when experience does not jive with the intended meaning or when they are based on intention rather than reality.  We have seen this occur in companies that talk about open communication, but it does not really exist because the leadership is too temperamental.  Or when companies spend time and money communicating their commitment to the environment and community, yet actions in a disaster or emergency do not seem to reflect the marketing message they invested in. 

Here is an example: One company I worked with was having a great deal of turnover and wanted to understand why.  After doing a cultural audit we found something very interesting.  The company did not celebrate birthdays or anniversaries.  That alone is not too telling, but it isn’t a good sign. It got worse.  The company made a big deal when people left and would hold a party to say goodbye.  In essence, the organization only valued you when you were leaving.  The stories people told were about those that used to work there and their send offs.  The ritual and stories became a strong message that had unintended effects. 

A change must be made when symbols have unintended effects and those effects are negative. Change can be difficult.  In the company with the turnover problem, people were not happy that the company was no longer going to provide the fanfare to departing employees.  It took a while for that change to cement itself.  But after recognizing people for their tenure, good work, and birthdays people began to let go of the old symbols and stories and embrace the new ones.  

Change with the Confederate flag won’t be easy for many either.  But when people realize that a lot of negative meanings are associated with the flag and the positive meanings are not shared, it is time for a change.  States are supposed to represent the broad population and flags flown by states are symbols.  State symbols are meant to represent the broad population and unite; not divide. 

Tradition is great, but maybe it is time for some new symbols, rituals and stories. 

What are some great symbols, stories and rituals being utilized in companies or the public?

What symbols, stories, and rituals need to be reexamined or changed?