Sometimes, Signals, & Status Symbols

“Symbols can be so beautiful, sometimes.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

The second Sunday in April is special to golfers as (weather permitting), someone will slip on the Green Jacket as the winner of the 2019 Masters. The Green Jacket, while a debatable fashion statement, is the ultimate status symbol among professional golfers. It signifies not only high achievement, but also membership in a very small group of past Champions.

To fans of the game of golf, a Green Jacket is a “beautiful” symbol (to borrow from Kurt Vonnegut). But what happens when symbols are not “beautiful” and have the potential to destroy culture? How do these symbols effect people in an organization, and what can we change by being intentional about the signals we send?

Status symbols often exist as part of hierarchical privilege. In the workplace, hierarchies exist to define organization and ensure accountability, but does the presence of status symbols for those at the top of the hierarchy reinforce the culture or destroy it? In the corporate world, corner offices, company cars, and perks for a select are symbols of status, often with a negative effect. In your workplace, the symbols may be different, but do they have a similar impact?

Many people probably feel that these privileges are earned…a reward for time served and value provided to an organization. Still others maintain that workplace status symbols actually serve as a source of frustration, not motivation, for those at the bottom of the hierarchy. Much has been written about how millennial's have rebelled against this type of workplace culture, but this is neither accurate or particularly valuable in my opinion. Workers of all ages have begun to openly question a work culture defined by hierarchies and status symbols, and on a greater scale have begun the debate on the very definition of “work”. This radical shift has happened fast and has created a difficult hiring environment in many industries.

What can you do to make your organizations work more effectively? It starts by realizing that each individual employee has values which are unique to them, and we do a disservice by assuming that every Millennial (or Gen X or Baby Boomer) is the same. I came up with a few rules that are a good start, but I’m sure my group of readers will be better at this than me. Please submit your ideas by clicking here.

  1. Treat each person as an individual – each person has a unique reason for working (and working for you!). If you don’t understand it, you don’t understand them.

  2. Think twice about your rules – Rules should exist to help people clarify their actions, not prohibit actions.

  3. Evaluate the impact of your status symbols – If everyone is on the same team, it should feel like everyone is on the same team.

  4. Communicate, then communicate some more – withholding information is a power grab, but sharing it is empowering.

  5. Be willing to adapt – the world is changing fast…you had better be willing to do the same.

I hope you have enjoyed my messages the past few weeks, as I have tried to encourage a different viewpoint on workplace culture. The first three focused on the basic concepts of recognition, vulnerability, and trust. If you missed any of them, please click the links above to catch up.

Michael Mueller, PGA Career Consultant

Proudly serving the Carolinas Section


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