Jan 272009

Symbolism in Action

Symbolism in Action

A couple months ago, I wrote about how the idiots who run the Big 3 US automakers in Detroit don’t have a clue about symbolism — the art or the science of it.  Yesterday, I wrote about how I think the non-headcount cuts to G&A that we’re making at Return Path during these challenging economic times will be positive for the company in the long run.  The two topics are closely related.

Obama announces on Day 1 that White House staffers who make more than $100k won’t be getting a pay raise this year.  Presumably all of those people just started their jobs on January 20 and wouldn’t be eligible for a raise until 2010.  Return Path cuts pilates classes in its Colorado office — an expense that must cost around $3,000/year.  Practically speaking, it won’t make a difference to our budget one way or another.  Microsoft lays off 1,400 people — a real number, certainly for those families — but that’s the equivalent of Return Path laying off 2 people. 

Sometimes the symbolic is just that.  It is something designed to send a signal to others, and not much more.  You could argue that all three examples above mean nothing in reality, so they were just symbolic.  A waste of time.

You can also make the argument that sometimes, when done right, symbolism turns into action as it motivates or serves as a catalyst for other changes.  Obama’s cuts may be fictitious, but they set the tone for broader action across a 2mm person bureaucracy.  Pilates in the office?  Feels too excessive these days, even for a company obsessed with its employees and their well being, in an era where we’re cutting back other things that are more serious.  Microsoft has gobs of cash and doesn’t need to worry about its future, but it wants to tell the other 99% of its employee population that it’s time to buckle down and fly straight.  And they will.

Anyone who thinks the synbolic doesn’t influence the practical should think again.  Or just talk to Caroline Kennedy about the impact of her admission that she hadn’t voted in years on her political ambitions.

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