What's Your Metaphor for Your Organization?

What's Your Metaphor for Your Organization?

In a recent blog I asked “What is your metaphor for leadership?” In that blog I pointed out a few things about metaphors that are very important to remember. Here they are for reference in a shorter version:

1. They are generative because they come out of the imagination: the world of the imagination is vast and expansive.

2. They take complex ideas and make them accessible: a single word picture can capture extremely layered and yet easy-to-understand concepts.

3. They are universal: because we all live in a physical world and metaphors are physical, we can all immediately relate.

One of the most powerful questions you can ask a group of people working together as a team or within an organization is “What is your metaphor for your organization or team?” This question almost always raises the energy in the room, gets people laughing and most remarkably, lets people feel safe to say things they would not normally feel they could or should.

I would like to add something to the list above that I have found unique to working with metaphors.

4. A metaphor makes emotions safe: by using a metaphor, that simple act of externalizing the emotion into the metaphor makes it safe to express that emotion.

This phenomenon of externalization has been used very effectively in Narrative Therapy and Narrative Coaching. If you are able to name something, it changes your relationship with that concept and the emotions associated with it become easier to express. This is largely because you have put the emotion outside yourself rather than privatizing it inside of your body or thoughts. Whatever identity connections or negative judgments one carries about something they believe is real can be set aside by externalizing through the metaphor. This is what can allow a team or organization to talk about what could be very sensitive. The old phrase of “name it to tame it” applies!

“What is your metaphor for your organization or team?”

Something else I have noticed in using this process of asking a group to generate metaphors for the current vs. desired organization is that these metaphors tend to organize themselves into categories. The categories that seem to surface most often break down into:

  • mechanistic or operational: “the organization is like a smooth running Maserati, sleek and powerful” – machines, computers, tools, holograms, buildings, etc.
  • organic or natural: “the team acts like a beautifully connected organism, with coordinated action as one entity” – animals, the ocean, brains, jungles, plants, organisms, etc.
  • cultural or social: “we are like the crew on the Starship Enterprise, diverse but working together when under threat” – well-known stories or films with multiple characters, sports teams, points in history, etc.

As mentioned before, this kind of exercise can be fun, fast-paced and very engaging for everyone in the room. More importantly, by using language as a means for revealing how people are constructing their reality, the group can quickly share insights and therefore see that reality in new ways. The group can engage in the study of the meaning of these metaphors and how they impact the strategy, the structure, the management style, the culture, and the environment of the organization.

With the emotions at bay, honest and respectful sharing of what each person sees as real can be blended into a shared sense of the world they all inhabit. With the power of metaphor and the safety created by naming them, we can talk about our frame of reference and move away from debates about who has the right fact or conclusion.

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