Symbols are the most apparent and observable aspects of organizational life. The symbols in the eyes of people have a language. Ordinary objects such as spoons and tables in a business have symbolic meanings. Scientists from different disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, and humanities have devoted interest for several decades on symbols.
Symbolism refers to the use of various symbols, which in the most general sense symbolize different elements and have different meanings.
The word “symbol” originally meant a token of remembrance (Turner, 2014) which remind people of what they have encountered or recall with short and simple icons.
Organizational symbolism explains the existence of all kinds of symbols in an organization, the meaning it conveys, the process of the meaning formation, the conflicts it creates, changes and its functioning.
In organizational behavior literature, symbols are mentioned together with organizational culture (Ari, 2014). In this context, symbols are defined as things that are meaningful to the organization and indicators of organizational culture Opens in new window.
Symbols reduce uncertainty in the organizational environment, facilitate interaction and communication and clarify relationships. Symbols in businesses emerge and become operational through organizational experiences.
Accordingly, organizational symbolism has been considered as an important research area by academicians especially in the fields of management and organization since the 1980s (Pondy et al., 1983).
Symbols in organizations have a decisive role in internal practices and organizational results due to their effects on individuals.
From this point of view, the language, narration and all kinds of concrete objects in the physical environment are the elements that convey messages and meanings symbolically.
However, these meanings and effects are not always obvious, clear and easily observable.
While a symbol can be meaningful due to its relationship with other Symbols in an order, no symbol can maintain its meaning alone from the others (Sargut, 1994: 58).
Organizational symbolism approaches the internal and external environment of the organization as well as the social world as an organic whole, while providing an inward look both inside and outside the organization.
Symbols have a decisive role and importance for businesses in all aspects of employees, working conditions and business relations.
It is also possible that the symbols may differ in the mind of the sender and the recipient, and that the meaning contained therein can be interpreted in the opposite way to the recipient.
For example, a business may apply a new grievance policy to be a symbol of organizational justice, but employees may interpret this message as negative in a way different from the meaning it contains due to the failure of such practices in the past.
The underlying reality of symbols is also important in terms of symbolic meanings. If the symbol has a meaning and contradictory or contradictory to the existing reality, if the employees are aware of the facts existing in the business, the symbol will not be effective due to the inconsistency between the facts and the symbols (Fuller, 2008).
Symbols in organizations while enriching organizational life can also be used by management as a control tool on employees (Sargut, 1994). Organizations standardize employees’ appearance and physical elements and communicate to their environment that they have strong control over their employees, implying that they have the power to provide quality services through this standardization.
Conceptual Views of Organizational Symbolism
Organizational symbolism conjures up a wide variety of meanings within the organizational community. A review of the organizational symbolism literature indicates that several conceptual views have emerged (Fuller, 2008).
Some researchers have addressed organizational symbolism as it relates to organizational culture (Louis, 1983; Alvesson & Berg, 2011).
A second popular approach to organizational symbolism follows logically from the first. According to Peters (1978) symbols could be used as tools to affect change in organizations.
He asserted that managers should manipulate symbols to create their preferred interpretations. Symbols are mechanisms organizations can use to signal their management philosophy to workers.
The third area of symbolism addresses the utility of management actions as symbols. Fuller et al., (2000) proposed that formal organizational structures created in response to civil rights legislation might be symbolic in nature, conveying meaning of legal compliance to employees.
Nowadays symbols establish the necessary infrastructure for the conservation and transmission of expertise in technology, markets, and customer-related transactions ahead into the future, as well as their primary meaning in the organizations (Seidel, 2007).
In summary, it is seen that organizational symbolism is viewed from the perspective of conceptualizing symbols and their use as meaning bearers in organizations. However, some empirical studies have been conducted on the fact symbols are seen as part of a culture.
In these studies, symbols are associated with norms and values. According to these studies, commonly shared norms, symbols and values refer to the underlying cultural values (Sagiv & Schwartz, 2007; Trice & Beyer, 1993).
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