What’s Next: Professor Jeffrey Lovelace Assesses Symbolic Actions of Executives

February 19, 2018
Jeffrey Lovelace

McIntire Professor Jeffrey Lovelace has been researching the relationship between executives, their symbolic actions, and what those actions mean for their organizations during times of sweeping change or uncertainty. When execs attempt to lead by example, they often intend to create meaning for their subordinates, especially when attempting to promote strategic initiatives within the firm. But what happens when these actions miss the mark, are improperly timed, or are met with resistance?

Lovelace delves into the topic in his recent paper, “The Role of Executive Symbolism in Advancing New Strategic Themes in Organizations: A Social Influence Perspective,” co-authored with Professor Donald Hambrick of Penn State University.

The piece appears in the January 2018 issue of Academy of Management Review, but the idea for the research dates back to when Lovelace was a teaching assistant in Hambrick’s executive M.B.A. course on strategy implementation and change at Penn State.

When the subject of executives using symbols arose in the course, students had strong reactions. While discussing those symbols and symbolic actions that succeeded and failed, Lovelace and Hambrick noted how often they were bound to initiatives being implemented by an organization’s leadership.

Given that previous literature on the subject spoke about it in a unilaterally positive light, Lovelace and Hambrick were struck by the difference between their experiences, and those of their students, from the research. Their own studies about the efficacy of symbols, the timing of when they are enacted, and many other factors have wide-ranging implications for leadership in many areas.

We sat down with Lovelace to find out more.

What exactly are we talking about when we discuss an organization’s symbols and symbolic actions?
Our article really focuses on organizational leaders and the symbolic meaning their actions can have for the members of the organization during uncertain times. When leaders introduce new strategic themes (i.e., new priorities) to an organization, these new themes are inherently related to change. As we all know, change can make people extremely uncomfortable because it is often accompanied by a sense of uncertainty. Ultimately, we explain that during these times, people within the organization will become even more attentive to the actions of the executive who is leading their organization. They will attempt to interpret what an executive’s actions may imply about their intentions or priorities for the future. Essentially, the leader’s actions convey symbolic meaning to the other members of the organization that influences their motivation or willingness to support the new theme the executive is trying to implement.

Can you give any examples of how leaders tie their key initiatives to symbols and symbolic actions?
The focus of our paper is about gaining a better understanding of how organizational leaders can effectively tie their symbolic actions to support their key initiatives. When they are able to do this, they are more likely to elicit a positive response from the members of the organization, making them more likely to support the new theme.

For example, customer service is a key strategic theme for online retailer Zappos. CEO Tony Hsieh famously sits in an open-concept office space with a desk that is the same size as those of the company’s customer service representatives. The symbolic message is that the work of these customer service reps is just as important to the company’s success as is the work of the top executive.

As another example, after Sal Palmisano took the reins of IBM from his predecessor, celebrated CEO Lou Gerstner, he famously opened an online forum for all IBM employees to discuss the values the organization should adopt moving into the future. He then actively engaged employees at all levels of the organization in this online forum. Through his actions, he symbolically conveyed the importance of input from all levels, his willingness to entertain that input, and the commitment needed from all employees to these values for the organization to be successful. And he did all this while the organization was enjoying great success, symbolically conveying the importance of not being complacent with current success.

You’ve mentioned that because of your own history as an Army officer, you’ve seen how the military is rife with examples of symbolic actions of leaders that have “tremendous amounts of meaning for those in the organization.” We’re all familiar with the ubiquitous nature of flags, indicators of rank, and other symbol usage in the military, but what other kinds of executive actions might impart meaning for others?
One of the keys to the effectiveness of symbolic actions by executives that we discuss is their apparent investment or personal sacrifice in promoting a new strategic theme. We explain that members of an organization often gain insight into an executive’s priorities through the allocation of personal resources by the executive. In the Army, this is often apparent in the role-modeling behaviors that leaders display by sharing the same risks as the soldiers in a combat zone or even in the effort they put into group physical training in order to always be in great shape. In a business environment, this may be conveyed by the time executives devote to visiting multiple locations to explain changes in person or by the amount of time they allocate to engaging with employees. The leader’s willingness to invest his or her own time, effort, or resources is a parallel between the Army and other contexts that was very clear to me.

Your paper introduces the concept of “theme-aligned symbols.” What kind of actions do leaders take that display this idea?
When we discuss the idea of theme-aligned symbols, we are specifically referring to actions an executive (or organizational leader) deliberately takes with the purpose of sending a message in support of a new strategic theme (a significant new priority). These symbolic actions can help members of the organization understand that the executive is truly committed to the strategic theme.

In the early days of Southwest Airlines, the entire strategy of company focused on low-cost service for its customers. To support this strategy, a key theme stressed by Herb Kelleher, CEO at the time, was expense control (i.e., keeping overhead down to pass on lower cost to customers). To do this, Kelleher famously reviewed and commented on any employee expenditure proposal for more than $1,000. This symbolically reinforced the importance of keeping costs down in everything the organization did.

How do “theme-muting symbols” work? How effective are they in suppressing a new theme?
In our paper, we explain that some subgroups of an organization will never have a positive reaction to an executive’s new strategic theme. For a variety of reasons, they will resist the changes associated a new theme. For these subgroups, the executive will aim to dampen resistance from the groups so that it does not spread to other parts of the organization.

One way they might do this is through the use of theme-muting symbols, actions intended to minimize the prominence of the implications of a new strategic theme. An executive might personally visit the offices of a subgroup to reassure them that any changes won’t impact their budget or number of personnel. The symbolic investment of the time the executive takes to visit the subgroups aims to reassure the group and subdue their fears. Our paper goes in depth on the factors that influence the effectiveness of both theme-muting and theme-aligned symbolic actions.

What conclusions did you make in your predictive framework concerning when executive symbolic actions will function best for implementing new strategic themes? Is there really an ideal time?
We introduce a variety of factors that are critical to the effectiveness of an executive’s use of symbolic actions, including how consistent the symbolic action is with other actions, whether the action resonates with the organization’s existing culture, the executive’s apparent investment in the action, the executive’s reputation, and the predisposition of members of the organization toward (or against) the new strategic theme.

In terms of a best time to use symbolic actions, I would argue that executives should constantly be mindful of the symbolic significance of their actions. This goes directly to the importance of the consistency of an executive’s actions. It is not only important to implementing changes associated with the new theme early on, but continues to be important later in the process, as maintaining the momentum of organizational change is also extremely important.

To hear Lovelace discuss his paper, click here.