Symbols (Still) Speak Louder Than Words


A few months ago, after the Big Three CEOs botched their first appearance in Washington, I wrote a blog titled “Symbols Speak Louder Than Words.”

Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath lends gravity to that point in her excellent article, “AIG: Why the Facts Don’t Matter.” Here’s an excerpt, but I encourage you to read the whole piece:

Here’s the problem: when you are facing a symbolic challenge, the facts do not matter.

Executives seem to either forget this or are reluctant to approach emotional issues with emotion. To counter a symbolic problem, you have to take on the meaning inherent in the symbolism, and to understand why the issue is triggering such an emotional backlash.

You’ll never succeed arguing substance when the real problem is a problem of emotional meaning. You need an emotional response that defuses the characteristics of the mess and meets the public where it lives. You need to show empathy and have a sense of where the wounded parties are coming from.

Most of all, as a leader, you need to frame the issues in ways that further your agenda.