Symbolic Action Exercise

Posted on by Brandon Klein

People often discount the value of symbols: a symbolic gesture may be dismissed as not substantial, something for show only. Yet it is through symbols that we communicate culture and value. When we change the pattern of our actions, even through symbolic action, we are signally change and creating the opportunity for new actions to occur. By symbolic action we mean taking steps that represent a larger principle; usually, it is a declaration of some kind of intent to follow a new course of action. Thus, we may literally have a group “bury the hatchet” to symbolize a cessation of hostilities and a willingness to work together. Or throw a brick, breaking a barrier, to symbolize an intent to eliminate unnecessary rules and separations. Or sign a declaration, wear a new badge, hold a bonfire and burn the rulebook or other symbols of the old order. Be aware of the elements of ritual and drama.

To break an old pattern and symbolically declare a new pattern. To reinforce a common commitment or intent.

A symbolic action can be used at different phases. At the beginning of a process, it could represent a choice: a commitment to follow the design process through. A different action could be used later, as a confirmation of intent (closing the Focus phase), or at the commencement of the process (at the end of the Act phase). In each case, the decision has to be made based on a strong reading of the group dynamics, to ensure the action will have a cohesive and (dare I say?) transformative affect desired. The time required is highly variable: some take 30 minutes, others 2 hours.

Strengths — Communicates on levels beyond mere words; is holistic, and satisfies a need for action to reinforce agreement. Works on the cultural level of an organization. Requires participants to declare their commitment. Can build unity; bonding a group together, committed to their mission. Can be fun. Involves risk; it’s gutsy; it isn’t “expected.”
Weaknesses — Can involve a high strangeness factor — people may object because it’s strange or for other reasons (e.g., ritual is only OK if it’s sanctioned by their religion; anything that looks even remotely religious is not appropriate for the workplace; rational Americans don’t believe in symbols; et cetera). This kind of exercise requires good planning (and the right introduction) to allay people’s natural resistance and make it work. Sometimes requires a large block of time.

Specifications for Success —
1. In general, use this process to reinforce a unity achieved, rather than to attempt to create unity. Avoid it if the odds aren’t in your favor – particularly if the proposed action itself could reinforce dissension or reveal a schism. In other words, don’t ask participants to take symbolic action until they have declared agreement with the principles being symbolized. That’s a prerequisite. For example, if they’ve not declared themselves ready to “bury the hatchet,” asking them to do so symbolically may force them instead to declare “we’re not ready” or coerce them into an action that is insincere, and may later be discounted.
2. Look for symbols that are meaningful to the specific culture of the organization or group. What words and metaphors do they use to describe the changes they want to make? Build on these.
3. Design the symbolic action so that it involves everyone. It’s one thing if participants observe an action, where one member acts as proxy for the group; another if everyone takes part. (For example, have each person drive a nail in the coffin and dig the ground for a hatchet being buried; each person declare the barrier they will take down and throw a brick to represent that barrier; or each person toss parts of the rulebook in the fire).
4. According to the theory of archetypes, people of all cultures relate in some way to basic symbols. For example, symbolic action often works with the transformative nature of the elements of earth, air, fire, and water; or with established rites of passage.