Managing As Symbolic Action

Tom Peters

Len Bias was not just another drug-overdose victim. Rock Hudson was not just another AIDS victim. The arrival of the planet’s five billionth human citizen is not just another birth.

On the other hand, we don’t even know who that five billionth person was, or, in fact, whether he or she was born last spring or will be born late this fall. And Bias and Hudson rate only routine entries in the official record books of Maryland’s Prince George’s County and Los Angeles County. Nonetheless, each of these occasions extends beyond their simple statistical significance, toward the broader and graver issues of drug abuse, AIDS, and overpopulation.

Each of these three events was statistically trivial. But on a symbolic level, each had the impact of a bombshell. Macho superstar Hudson with AIDS?! The new pride of the Celtics is dead at age 22, one day after signing a multi-million-dollar NBA contract and a shoe endorsement?! There are five billion people?!

People, including managers, do not live by pie charts alone—nor by bar graphs nor three-inch statistical appendices to 300-page reports. People live, reason, and are moved by symbols stories—”little knots of meaning,” as the late Gregory Bateson, the noted psychologist, called them.

We read ceaselessly about President Reagan’s talent as a storyteller. Even his fans often blush at the variance between statistical reality and his chosen story. But no one, friend or foe, snickers at the skill and power with which our master storyteller has created compelling images that have moved the nation and spearheaded controversial policies.

Management is a symbolic activity. It involves energizing people, often large numbers of people, to do new things they previously had not thought important. Building the case—to really deliver a quality product or to double the investment in research and development or to cut middle-management bloat by 75 percent—is an emotional process at least as much as it is a rational one.

It requires us, as managers, to get people to share our sense of urgency in new priorities; to develop personal, soul-deep animus toward things as they are; to get up the nerve and energy to take on the forces of inertia that bog down any significant change program.

The best managers, almost without exception and at every level, are, like the current White House incumbent, master manipulators of stories and symbols.

Football coaches prominently post newspaper columns from the opponent’s hometown the week before the big game—”We’re going to knock the socks off those lucky wimps.” The object is to provide a tangible target at whom they can charge. Legendary boxing champ Joe Louis used to put a picture of his next ring opponent on his bureau, and stare at it hour after hour, month after month, before the fight. And to jolt a quality program into action, numerous managers I know have saved up defective products for a week and piled them on the factory floor in plain view of all involved; or even carried them by the bucketful into a board of directors meeting.

The point is, symbols are it when it comes to moving people toward action. I believe the would-be effective manager must learn to think about the management of symbols. Here are some suggestions.

Get customer complaint and compliment letters sent directly to you. If your business or business unit is over a quarter million dollars in size, I’ll bet each week will bring forth at least two or three specific examples, which, in turn, permit you to reinforce exemplary actions or chastise inappropriate ones.

If you can’t get direct customer feedback that way (or if you run an internal department), call three or four customers or users of your service each week. Again, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that something(s) will surface—at least a story or two that you, as teacher/symbol manipulator, can use to exhort your colleagues to a higher level of performance.

I certainly am not suggesting that you quit collecting statistics. The numbers are important. Moreover, I suggest that you ensure that your “story of the week” bears strong relation to overall trends, that it is a valid outcropping of an old—or, better yet, emerging—trend. Finally some stories backfire; they strike people as contrived or beyond reasonable. Avoid them.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, the average day or week serves up a set of good-news and bad-news stories that are plausible and that conform to harder, more systematically collected data.

Remember, then, that people do not reason by pie charts alone. In fact, people don’t reason, much less become emotional and committed, by graphs and charts at all. Are you a conscious, proactive user of the rich stream of stories and symbolic opportunities that swirl around you daily? Do you go out of your way to collect little stories—each day, each week? Do you systematically broadcast them?

Resolve to collect three good-news and four bad-news stories concerning your top strategic priority within the next week. Talk about them, write about them. Ask others to collect—and use—good-news/bad-news stories in a similar fashion.

(c) TPG Communications.

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