Symbolic egalitarianism: A drop of water to a withering plant

Thursday, 5 September 2019 00:38 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 

Symbolic egalitarianism is today’s focus. Social equality, of which organisations are concerned about, is a concept very important for the betterment of mankind. Power assigned to different ‘managerial positions’ in the organisations inevitably creates a gap among employees, and it also affects the confidence of the employees; particularly the ones in the bottom levels. In this context, symbolic egalitarianism is like a drop of water to a withering plant.  

Iddagoda & Opatha in 2018 identifies symbolic egalitarianism as a competitive advantage as well as a high performance work practice. The term ‘symbolic egalitarianism’ implies using symbols for the purpose of minimising the differences within the levels of employees whose purpose is achieving a common organisational goal. The symbols include visible signs, such as dresses, and the use of physical space; dress codes, common cafeteria, common parking area and constant office arrangements are some of the most common ways of implementing symbolic egalitarianism. 

According to Pfeiffer in 1994, Bolman & Deal in 2003, at New United Motor Manufacturing, everyone dines in the same cafeteria, with no special allotments for executive dining rooms. In this organisation, everyone wears a blue smock and parking spaces are not reserved for the individuals; the motto of NUMMI is ‘There are no managers, no supervisors, only team members’.

Egalitarian symbols are found in different forms and versions. As Pfeiffer (1994) states, in certain organisations, it is ‘dress’; hardly any worker in a manufacturing facility is not familiar with the phrase ‘the suits are coming’, which refers to people from headquarters who are usually more formally dressed. Pfeiffer (1994) stated how pins with the organisation’s insignia or logo are used by Japanese organisations, which is worn by everyone to indicate that the person is a part of the organisation. 

Another effective way of implying ‘commonness’ is the physical space. Pfeiffer (1994) states: “The CEO of Solectron, a contract manufacturer that won the Malcolm Baldrige award, does not have a private office, and neither does the chairman.” Everything has its advantages and disadvantages. Symbolic egalitarianism is also the same.  

An egalitarian company provides employees the opportunity to contribute equally as well as share recognition for success, which is one of many advantages of an egalitarianism system. In such a system, an individual worker is responsible for personal and team tasks, and he or she is not shackled by the chain of authority or disadvantaged by the fact that some other claims responsibility for the positive results that others worked for, since egalitarian company culture promotes individual accountability by giving the workers more freedom. 

Hence, Pfeiffer (1994) emphasises that although the problems in the new office arrangements include, but are not limited to, an absence of acoustical privacy at times, they do signify more equality. 

Egalitarian structure can be implemented as a recruiting tool, to motivate employees who are dissatisfied with traditional workplaces. An egalitarian company provides employees the opportunity to contribute equally as well as share recognition for success, which is one of many advantages of an egalitarianism system. In such a system, an individual worker is responsible for personal and team tasks, and he or she is not shackled by the chain of authority or disadvantaged by the fact that some other claims responsibility for the positive results that others worked for, since egalitarian company culture promotes individual accountability by giving the workers more freedom. Hence egalitarian companies can use this structure as a recruiting tool, in order to attract employees who are dissatisfied with traditional workplaces.

Across level communication being enhanced by the opportunity to interact and meet in less formal settings is, as Pfeiffer (1994) discusses, another advantage of egalitarianism. 

This is an indication that the senior management is aware of the real events and is capable of communicating directly to everyone in the facility. Reduction in the number of social categories tends to decrease the salience of various subdivisions in the organisation, diminish the thinking pattern of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and create the sense of everyone working for a common goal. Egalitarianism makes cross-movement easier due to fewer status distinctions that are to be overcome.  



Providing services to the society while making profit is the rationale behind every business. Symbolic egalitarianism being cost saving is an advantage for the managers. An egalitarian structure based business creates enough opportunities for extensive cost savings. As managers do have identical efficient spaces same as those of other workers, instead of large fancily furnished offices, and as executive washrooms and dining rooms are no longer necessities, the company may focus more on facilitating what its workers need for a consistent, reasonable cost. 

The money a business spent earlier on facilitating for top-level employees can be diverted to improve common workplace facilities for everyone or strengthen the company’s bottom line. 

No concept, including symbolic egalitarianism, is 100% perfect. An egalitarian company may also face problems when the employees adapt to the structure; especially the employees from traditional work backgrounds of hierarchical companies. For instance, those who held high-level managerial positions and those who worked in entry-level positions may not feel comfortable in the setting and as a result their constructive engagement with colleagues is less likely.

Hence, a major role in achieving the fullest benefits of symbolic egalitarianism has to be played by the leadership, for lack of careful planning and leadership may lead an egalitarian company into considerable problems. 

(The writer is a researcher and a lecturer. She holds a PhD from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura Sri Lanka, an MBA in Human Resource Management from the Postgraduate Institute of Management, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, a Master of Information Technology (MIT) postgraduate degree, Bachelor of Information Technology (BIT) both from Charles Sturt University, Australia. Dr. Iddagoda does research in Human Resources. Her current project is ‘Employee Engagement’. She has been a guest researcher at the Department of Sociology and Work Science in the University of Gothenburg Sweden.)

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