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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK

The Real Value of Totems

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We often get asked: “How do I know if a business I am working in is conscious?”

There are plenty of posts here, and on other sites, which attempt to answer that question by giving lists of attributes – behaviours, processes, statements of principles etc.

These ideas are very, very useful. But they also have limitations.

Our BHAG is to create more conscious businesses. That means change. Such analytical and diagnostic methods can help bring about change in organisations. But there are other ways to assist change – and to increase consciousness in a business.

For example, in our consulting practice, we often encourage our clients to create what we call ‘totems’. Another contributor to this site, Rob Warwick, has written about this topic too, but from a slightly different angle.

A totem is an object to which a society or group attaches a particular significance or meaning. It may become emblematic of that society or group.

For example, one of our clients created a pack of Top Trumps cards representing the strengths of employees. Another has a large banner which represents the future vision of the company.

A totem can be something physical, or it can be a ritual.

For example, at another client in the ’90s we started holding stand-up meetings. These meetings became an emblem of how things were done. Since then many other companies have come up with the same idea – it’s not a unique practice. By what it represented was unique to that group at that time – in that case innovation and the ability to do things differently, and better.

One of our long-term clients, NixonMcInnes, has at least two obvious totems. One is a ritual: The Church of Fail, which came directly from some workshops we ran for the company. The other is Happy Buckets, which was born a little more indirectly, but still by design.

The idea of measuring happiness in a business has been around for many years. Paddi Lund, for example, first wrote about it 1994. In fact, I borrowed the idea from Paddi’s book “Building the Happiness-Centred Business”. There’s lots of interest in the idea today, post-Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, and there’s even a Chief Happiness Officer!

Happy Buckets is very simple in principle.

When people leave the office they simply drop a ball into a bucket to show whether they are feeling happy or sad, or something in between. The number of balls is counted up every day. At NixonMcInnes the figures are reported back weekly to the whole team, and monthly to the management team for further consideration.

People often ask: “What do you do when the numbers go down?” “How do these numbers correlate with other business measures, like profitability?” “Do the numbers really measure happiness?” And so on.

Unfortunately, these questions miss the real point of this and many other totems.

The important thing from an organisational development perspective is what simply having Happy Buckets means. What does it mean to the group – the business team – and how will that meaning help effect real, lasting change in the organisation?

Clearly something like Happy Buckets means different things to different people. Meaning is constructed on the fly, and is related to context, our personal state and probably other things.

But we can make some guesses for the meanings people might construct. For example:

  • To some, measuring happiness every day signifies that the company cares about employees and their happiness.
  • To some it means that employee happiness is an objective of the company beyond simply making money.
  • To some it might simply mean that the company likes to measure things.
  • To some it might mean that the company values experimentation and piloting things.

And so on.

All these different meanings give people a story to tell, a narrative to follow. By telling the story and listening to it, we create meaning together. And we gain something to hold onto, something to ‘anchor’ around.

As long as it stays foregrounded, the totem begins to emblemise something about the company – something semi-permanent about the ‘culture’. As we construct the ideas in words and language, we start to ‘live’ it, and the ‘culture’ emerges.

At best that aspect of culture becomes ‘embedded’. Something is now different from how it was. A short cycle of change is completed. Or so the theory goes.

Of course, there’s probably more to it than that.

For example, I can also read Happy Buckets as a transitional object.

Businesses and society generally are stuffed full of such objects. It has been argued that work itself is something that we use to manage separation from our parental figures. Work, just like a teddy bear or a security blanket, helps us grow up, and gain our own adult independence.

So, perhaps, for some, totems like Happy Buckets operate in a similar way. We attach to them, and hold them as important, because they signify something that is important to us about a particular company.

When they represent a particular kind of relationship – a caring relationship between an organisation and an employee, for example – they allow us to foreground that relationship, and perhaps eventually integrate it.

By that I don’t mean move away from it, nor do I mean cosy up to it. I mean to bring the parts together and make a connected whole.

Over time, therefore, that object might allow us to step beyond a simplistic and dependent relationship into a realisation that we can choose to build caring relationships with other adults, in adult ways, in the company we work in, and beyond the company or corporation too.

That also takes us beyond a rather mechanistic view of company culture as something we can ‘build’ or ‘create’ or ‘design’ and into a more complex one – where culture is continually constructed by adults relating to each other. In complex and continually evolving ways.

That to me seems much closer to how life is.

As a way of thinking and being it also generates a ‘living flexibility’ that from a business and a human perspective seems more likely, at least to me, to give us the immediate and longer-term results we need.

What do you think? Does your business have totems? What do they mean to you, and your fellow employees? What are the obvious meanings, and the more subtle? Do they help or hinder people in ‘growing up’ and becoming more conscious?

Author: Pete Burden

Partner at Conscious Business People. CBP is a new type of business consultancy focusing on culture, leadership and strategy for a digital and more purposeful world

One thought on “The Real Value of Totems

  1. Here’s another lovely totem. The Zappos Culture Book

    http://www.zapposinsights.com/culture-book

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