One summer during college, I worked with my uncle’s firm building microwave towers out West. It was one of those great jobs that pay you more in experiences than dollars that I will always remember. During that time, my uncle noticed that I a book in my backpack.
“What are you reading?” he asked. “‘The Archeology of Knowledge‘? Michel Focault? Who is he?”
“He’s French,” I said. “He’s a philosopher.”
“French philosophy?” my uncle snorted. “Good luck paying for groceries with that!”
Deep down, I couldn’t argue, but I read the French philosophers anyway, specifically the ones focused on language. Focault, Derrida, Barthes, Saussure were tough SOBs to read, but they opened up new ways to think about words and their meanings.
One thing I learned was the difference between the signifier and the signified. In plain terms, the signifier is the word and the signified is the object that the word represents. For example, the word, “chair”, is a representation of something else, namely, a physical object that one may sit on.
That all seems rather obvious. But there is one key here. The relationship between the word and the object is a social one: people have agreed what the word, “chair”, refers to. Without social agreement, the word becomes, in effect, meaningless.
Now, let’s assume that someone has decided that the word, ‘chair’ now refers to something else. You come into his house and he says, “Have a seat on this nice chair,” and points you to a picture frame lying against the wall. You hesitate and are confused. “But it’s not a chair,” you protest. “Yes, it is. It is a chair. Sit.” If that individual has power over you, you end up having no choice. A chair is no longer a chair. The signifier is separated from the signified.
Now, your host asks if you would like a nice cup of tea. You begin to sweat. “What does he mean? Is it really what I think is a cup of tea, or is it something else?” Stay in this funhouse long enough and you end up shaking in your picture frame/chair questioning yourself and being afraid of everything. The social contract between word and meaning has been broken and therefore the community itself begins to break down.
That’s a (hopefully) extreme example. But one of the biggest challenges organizations face is the disconnect between what managers say and what their employees experience. And, in today’s economy of falling sales, where organizations balance the need to remain profitable, in part via layoffs, with the need to invest in growth and motivate its workforce, what is a manager to say?
The simplest answer is: the truth. Early and often. Do not sugarcoat the situation and do not ignore the impact your actions have on your workforce. The most important thing you can do is to remove the uncertainty of the situation. As Stephen Gill writes, people are resilient if they know what the situation is and if there is a plan to deal with it. Being vague or unengaged doesn’t cut it. You need to be visible, you need to demonstrate — through actions, attitude and body language — that you are consistent with what you say.
As a manager, you can only be successful if you have the trust of your employees. Disconnecting words from their meanings, by saying one thing and acting another or by stating that things are OK when layoffs are occurring, is a surefire way to break the social contract you have with your staff. And, in so doing, you severely inhibit your capacity for future growth and innovation.
No picture frames for chairs. You don’t need to be a French philosopher to get that.