Our language is littered with metaphor. Oftentimes, we do not notice metaphor unless it is used poetically. Had I said, “We walk through streets of literature littered with metaphor”, you are more likely to have spotted ‘littered’ as a metaphor for the ubiquity of metaphor. ‘Littered’ suggests metaphor contaminates our language, just like litter contaminates the street. Perhaps, I’m even suggesting we are so accustomed to seeing litter on the street we have stopped noticing the street is cluttered, dishevelled, even unhealthy. I’m clearly suggesting metaphor is a bad thing, and we’ve stopped noticing it is bad.
Our language is rich with metaphor. A different connotation entirely. Metaphor is a good thing, perhaps even having monetary value. Money: that thing that symbolises success in our culture, that enables us to feed and protect ourselves, that gives us choice, freedom and agency over our lives.
The use of metaphor is very helpful to the reader as it describes what you’re trying to say in a few words. The reader’s mind ‘conjures’ up her own interpretation from her own experience; an experience that is rich with her own metaphor. She can see the ‘whole picture’ you were ‘painting’. The problem is that the use of one metaphor – is it magic or is it art? – restricts other interpretations. This is how others’ words can manipulate us.
Our language defines our culture. We create the word around us though how we talk and write about it. As such, it also defines the organisations we create. The organisations that is, where we work, rest and play; where we live our lives.
And so, the words we use to describe those organisation matter. We tell stories about those organisations and the metaphors we use are very much a part of that narrative.
I’ve just looked back at the A to Z of OD articles I’ve written in this series to review the metaphor I’ve been using to describe organisations and OD. I counted nearly 100 examples. Many of these are consciously deployed – OD is a journey for example – however several were unconscious.
The most frequent positive metaphor I use is one that describes organisations as organisms: I provide the right ‘climate’ for people to ‘flourish’, I put leaders at the ‘heart’ of organisations, I encourage ideas to ‘spread like viruses’, I ‘diagnose’ issues with them when the organisation ‘hiccoughs’ and I provide ‘antidotes’ to what I must perceive to be poisonous practices.
I also quite often use negative connotations, suggesting organisations and organisation development are instruments of domination and coercive control: OD ‘drives’ the culture (as if driving a team of horses, perhaps?) and ‘spurs’ people on, it has change ‘targets’, I talk of humans being treated as ‘puppets’, manager and employee as ‘servant and master’ and that managers deploy ‘tricks’ to get things done.
And sometimes I refer to organisations as if they were machines: employee engagement is one of the ‘engines’ of organisational effectiveness, leaders pull ‘levers’ to ‘lock in’ changes and are themselves the ‘lubrication’ that ensures the organisation operates smoothly.
That is not to say organisations literally are organisms, instruments of coercion or machines. But they can exhibit characteristics that are like those things. Next time you are describing your organisation or OD approach, what metaphor are you using? What metaphor do others use, particularly influential people like the CEO? And how might these metaphors be denying other possible interpretations?
OD thought leader: Gareth Morgan
Gareth Morgan wrote the definitive guide to organisational metaphor, categorising and exemplifying eight archetypal metaphors for organisations:
|Archetype||Words used include|
|Machine||Efficiency, waste, order, clockwork, operations, re-engineering|
|Organism||Living systems, life cycles, evolution, fitness, health, adaption, malaise|
|Brain||Learning, mindset, feedback, knowledge, networks|
|Culture||Values, beliefs, rituals, diversity, tradition, history, vision, family|
|Political system||Power, hidden agendas, authority, toe the line, gatekeepers, Star Chamber|
|Psychic prison||Regression, denial, Parent/Child, ego, defence mechanism, dysfunction, coping, pain|
|Flux and transformation||Change, flow, self-organisation, emergent, paradox, complexity, VUCA|
|Instrument of domination||Compliance, charisma, coercion, corporate interest, alienation|
He suggests metaphor is a simple tool that can help leaders and OD practitioners effect change and solve seemingly intractable problems that require adaptive thinking from people right across and down the organisation.
Recommended reading: Morgan, Gareth (2006), Images of Organization (Updated Ed.), Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
Next time: N is for Nudge Theory.