A few years ago, whilst travelling for work, my boss at the time liked to listen to TED talks and podcasts in the car. Everyone made suggestions for the team ‘playlist’ and the many hours spent driving through our area of responsibility were put to good use. With almost eight hours between the north and the south of our area, there were a lot of podcasts and TED Talks on that list!
In a fit of ‘I don’t know what he was thinking”, my boss chose to make us listen to a TED Talk on the history, uses and origins of flags – Vexillology. Without the quirkiness of ‘Fun with Flags’ with Sheldon and Amy, you can be assured that we all gave him significant grief about his choice. Still, over four years later, jokes are made about the time we’ll never get back in our lives listening to that podcast.
You can imagine my surprise when a TEDx Shorts Talk about flags popped up on my Spotify list this week. After the immediate panic of “Oh no, not again!”, I got distracted and ended up listening to most of “How flags unite (and divide) us” by accident and it actually got me thinking…
Flags represent our countries, our cultures and our passions. People stand by their flags, athletes compete under their flags and soldiers march to war under their flags. Flags represent our sub cultures; they can show both danger (pirate flag) and safety (red and yellow flag at beach). They give us a sense of belonging and are a symbol invoking great emotion, from pride to anger.
Imagine for a moment if your flag wasn’t a piece of cloth, blowing in the wind, but a symbol or ritual of your team instead. What if your “flag” was actually a powerful example of visual identity?
When I worked at Australian Red Cross, there was an unspoken ‘uniform’ of skinny jeans and a blazer amongst the young and highly educated staff. Despite not owning any myself at the beginning, I counted seven pairs of coloured skinny jeans in my closet by the end of my tenure. This ‘uniform’ had inadvertently became a symbol of acceptance and of ‘brand’. Without realising it, this stylish attire created an ‘in group’ and an ‘out group’.
In another workplace, back in the early 2000s, smoking was the ‘flag’. You were either part of the smoking group, or you weren’t. Decisions were made by those who stood outside in the cold, huddled together with a lit cigarette twice, sometimes three times a day. This wasn’t done purposefully to exclude anyone, but it just happened by circumstance. This unhealthy habit became a symbolic action dividing the team.
Flags have detailed and comprehensive ‘codes’ – rules on how you can use a flag. The Australian Flag Code – Part 2 (2006) provides an all-inclusive 23 pages of information about the do’s and don’ts of flag use. Breaking the code is like breaking the law, is seen as un-Australian and quickly denounced as unacceptable behaviour. We hold our national symbols of the Australian and Indigenous flags in high cultural status.
Your team may not have a piece of cloth as it’s ‘flag’ but I bet there are symbols shared within the group, uniting people together. I’d imagine you also have some symbols that may divide people too. Are there any rituals of behaviour your team has developed over time? How would a new staff member know the importance of your ‘flags’? Is there an unwritten code?
Leadership Challenge – During your next professional development day, as an activity with your team, ask everyone to draw/design their own personal flags, and then combine key elements to come up with a visual representation of your team.
You can listen to “How flags unite (or divide) us” on TEDx Shorts at:
Thanks for the thought provoking article Alex, you always make me reflect and think.