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It’s Not Rocket Surgery

“Let’s make sure we communicate this up the chain of command”

“We’re cultivating our next generation of leaders”

“We took a shot and we missed”

“You need to stop sitting on the sideline”

“The project has been derailed”

“We’re playing defense when we should be playing offense”

“We’re like a family”

“Let’s put together a task-force”

“I call foul”

A small fascination of mine is noticing the metaphors that people use in organizations. Listening for metaphors is harder than it sounds. Some of them are so embedded in our daily language that I forget that they’re metaphors. Like ‘time is money’, or “showing the ropes” to a new person.

Recently, at an employment law conference, I attended a session about addressing sexual harassment in the workplace and was troubled by the thick layer of militaristic, adverserial metaphors used by the presenter. The lawyer, who indicated she does both employee and employer-side work, spoke to a room of HR professionals about complainants “coming after” organizations, launching “a campaign” to get into a company’s deep pockets, and encouraging us to see our policies as a “sword and shield”. (I have so.many.things. to say about all this, but that’s for another post).

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In general, metaphors are useful because they evoke images that serve as a kind of mental shorthand, communicating more meaning in fewer words by comparing something less familiar to something that’s more familiar. To do this, metaphors rely on invisible similarities between situations. Of course, in doing that, they highlight particular aspects of the situation that we’re using a metaphor to explain, and ignore other aspects.

For example, when we say that a project has been derailed we’re saying that it’s like a train that’s come of it’s tracks in that the project deviated from its planned course, but we’re almost certainly not saying that it’s like a train that has crashed into another train resulting in a tragic loss of life.

As Gareth Morgan says in Images of Organization (a classic, and very worthwhile book on the metaphors we use to talk about organizations):

“The metaphor frames our understanding…in a distinctive yet partial way – partial, because metaphor always produces a one-sided insight. In highlighting certain interpretations, it forces others into a background role.”

Morgan explains that the implication of this selective focus that’s a natural consequence of using metaphors is an inherently incomplete, distorted, and even misleading view of the thing we are describing. That is, all metaphors are partly true, but the other parts that we ignore can have consequences.

So, the metaphors that we choose to utilize, and the ones that become part of our organization’s lexicon, can tell us quite a bit about what we focus on, what we might be more likely to overlook, how we see the world in front of us, and maybe even how that view will shape our actions.

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When a metaphor emphasizes particular aspects of a situation and ignores others, our conversations can inadvertently be shaped into a more narrow and simplistic exchange. We can get ‘stuck’ in the metaphor and have difficulty reframing the situation to see it through another lens.

It’s not hard to see how this happens. If we speak to one another in language heavy with militaristic metaphors, how will a suggestion that emphasizes shared, participatory solutions sound? At the very least, it may jangle a little, sounding out of tune with the rest of the discussion. Maybe it will sound naive, or doomed to fail, and be dismissed as risky or “too soft”.

Did the mechanistic metaphors that Taylorism relied on make it inevitable that we’d still be struggling, decades later, to escape the virulent idea that people are interchangeable parts, and that “everyone is replaceable”? Maybe. Are metaphors that equate an organization to a computer running on an operating system any different or better? I honestly don’t know.

When context changes, our language may not keep up. Metaphors that become habitual turns of phrase can lead to a mismatch between our language and reality. “Career ladder” feels like a vestigial saying from a bygone era. A career these days isn’t much like a ladder. It’s more like a bicycle, except the bicycle is on fire, and the ground is on fire, and you might be in gig worker hell (to repurpose a meme).

It’s a fun exercise; try to notice the metaphors you use most frequently, and those you hear most often in your organization. What qualities of a situation or thing do these metaphors highlight, and what might they be ignoring? What might be the consequences of using those metaphors rather than others?

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Recommended Content

How To Fail with Elizabeth Day – S6 Ep2: Interview with Alain De Botton

This is soooooo good. De Botton, founder of The School of Life, shares lots of wisdom, including his view that we need more human skulls in our daily lives, and the assertion that he, and we, are idiots; but it’s okay because so is everybody else.

Systems Change is All About Shifting Power –  Cyndi Suarez, Non Profit Quarterly

“Often, people in a system do not know what the actual goals are. Sometimes this is intentional. I see this a lot in racial justice work, where the change goals are usually set by and for the dominant, or elites, in the system because they are the ones with the power to set those goals. This likely contributes to the common discrepancy between what we say and what we do, which is why understanding the power to set goals and who wields it is critical to any systems change work, including racial justice efforts. Not only are systems change processes inherently about power shifting, in our society, power shifting processes are inherently racial justice processes. When undergoing systems change, then, it is critical to understand that there need to be new, power-explicit, system-level goals, and these should be designed to address its power hierarchies.”

How to Support an Employee with Social Anxiety – Erika Hendricksen, HBR

“Don’t try to force people to conform to your idea of what “normal” behavior should look like. Support introverts who wear headphones when concentrating…or put in an appearance at Friday beer hr & then head out. In short, embrace a wide range of personalities & working styles”

Other Awesome Stuff:

Bookkeeping Bootcamp with Jami Monte

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If you believe in investing in yourself and understand the importance of financial health in creating a successful, sustainable business check out Jami’s Bootcamp

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent post. Thanks for provoking thought.

    October 7, 2019
  2. Thank you so much Carol 🙂

    October 7, 2019
  3. Laurent-Pierre Marcoux-Riverin #

    Great post Jane! It is so insightful to observe the various metaphors used across different departments and level of hierarchy in an organization. I remember being shocked by this phenomenon when I moved “up the ladder” at my previous job. You made me realize how these are significant artifacts of the subcultures one might encounter, either as an external consultant trying to help system change, or as a new employee trying to make sense of what kind of company they decided to join! Thank you!

    November 27, 2019

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