Symbolic Communication – Understanding What’s Really Being Said

The title of Cornelia Gamlem’s short story, Code Talkers, caught my attention. As a military veteran, I was happy to read Cornelia’s honoring of the last Navajo Code Talker from WWII who died earlier in the year. However, I have to admit that I thought she was going to be talking about the “code talk” that goes on in organizations and groups.

Code talk in organizations and groups? You are probably thinking….we usually speak the same language in organizations or actually two if you count that most occupational groups commonly use their own colloquialisms. For example, most of us use say word bathroom. However, the colloquial word used among Navy sailors for bathroom is head and Army soldiers call the bathroom a latrine. Healthcare is notorious for its use of acronyms in both the written and spoken language. After spending a little time in organizations, most of us can become fluent in the “occupational language” and may even speak it with a sense of pride since this signals that we are now full fledge members of the “in” group.

However, it has been my experience that decoding symbolic expressions or messages in groups may be much more challenging for an outside person but can provide an understanding of the hidden dynamics in a workplace. Symbolic Communication provides us information of how members of an organization interpret their environment. For example, I have had employees in a business unit use the simile, “it’s like being in a war zone up here” to describe their workplace.

Why is it important to be able to include the decoding of symbolic communication in your diagnostic tool kit of group dynamics? The symbolic metaphors group members use may provide an understanding of the behavior of the group members. Going back to our war zone metaphor, if an employee truly believes the workplace is a “war zone”, he or she may demonstrate some of the behaviors associated with being a real war zone….heightened anxiety and fear, defensive posturing, incivility, and a “win-lose” mindset. And remember, in a war zone, there is always an enemy so who might be the targeted individual or group? The war zone metaphor may be code talk for a hostile work environment.

Since symbolic messages can convey legitimate information, careful inquiry is needed to surface issues negatively impacting performance. Besides inquiry skills, there are also three basic rules to remember as you begin to explore symbolic communication in a group or organization. The rules are: (1) clarify the desired outcome of what you want to achieve; 2) avoid exposing just for the sake of exposing; and (3) measure success by the progress you make toward the outcome, not the exposure. Remember, the code talkers in groups or organizations may have much to lose if their code is broken and exposed for no good use.

Marsha Hughes-Rease

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