Ritual in Business: Building a Corporate Culture through Symbolic Management

By Lange, Christian | Industrial Management, July/August 1991 | Go to article overview
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Ritual in Business: Building a Corporate Culture through Symbolic Management

Lange, Christian, Industrial Management

Anthropologists have long had an interest in ritual behavior. It is not until the last two decades, however, that a widespread interest has developed in exploring the incidence of ritual in business organizations. As the international business community grew smaller and more competitive, a burgeoning interest developed to explore business cultures that seemed radically different and menacingly successful. In the early eighties, researchers showed particular curiosity in Japanese business cultures, dedicating much of their time to studying the values and rituals of companies in that country.

In March of 1989 we set out to study the relationship between an organization's culture and the ritual behavior found within its corporate walls. I hypothesized that companies use ritual as a way of expressing the values and identity of their culture. During a three month period, I studied the rites and ceremonies of three companies in East Tennessee. Eighteen interview subjects participated.

I first became interested in this topic after reading the extensive research of Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy which studied organizational culture in nearly 80 firms. Their exhaustive study found that companies which were high performers all had one thing in common: all were characterized as strong culture companies. A well-heeled culture appeared to be synonymous with successful management.

It would seem, however, that if a culture indeed exists, it must somehow manifest itself. Symbolism and ritual expression reduce complex, abstract ideals into things or actions which people can perceive and understand. It takes a lofty ideal such as "pride of membership" and, by way of a flag ceremony, taps into the most basic of human emotions. It is easier to develop emotional attachments (and other feelings) towards something one can see, hear, smell, or touch.

Ritual should not be confused with habit. Habits are meaningless things people do repetitively for convenience or efficiency. Ritual actions symbolize a significant belief or ideal. Taken together, they represent a body of values.

In order to appreciate the significance and usefulness of ritual in today's business world, it is necessary to look at its origins in human behavior. The earliest evidence of ritual behavior comes from Northern Iraq in the prehistoric graves of Neanderthal man.

In examining the human skeletons of people who lived forty to fifty thousand years ago, archeologist Ralph Solecki came across another discovery. An unusually high content of pollen from wild flowers was found in the soil of each grave. The connection was unavoidable: In the twilight of his civilization, mesolithic man recognized death as a significant event that merited special behavior. In what were probably the earliest such ceremonies, the deceased person was covered with flowers and laid to rest.

As the human species approached Neolithic times (the new StoneAge), we begin finding evidence of another form of ceremony, hunting rites. Perhaps the earliest form of religion or worship, cave paintings frequently show representations of speared animals, hunters on the prowl, or a ceremonial dance. The paintings suggest the interaction with "spirits" or perhaps a hunting god to petition a successful outing.

As part of the socialization process, humans also developed a perspective that recognized various stages of life. The importance of a person's transition from one stage to another became more and more pronounced as rites of passage became more significant. While each culture sees these life stages from a different view, birth, puberty, marriage, and death appear to be universally valued as important milestones. Anthropologists Morton and Martha Fried have noted that "no population ever visited by ethnographers or known in any detail to history, has ever lacked some observance of (these four transitions)."

Seven Business Rituals

Since the scope of this study is limited to business applications, the kinds of ritual researched was confined to only those which would occur in a work setting.

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