The Power and Limitation of Metaphors

I got the opportunity to do an MBA guest lecture last Saturday. I spoke on “The Power and Limitation of Leadership and Organisational Metaphors”. The students’ feedback was great and I had fun designing and delivering the lecture (slides below). I have been interested in metaphors since the day; I did a module on the topic for my Psychology Masters degree about 10 years ago.

Here are some of the key things I shared on Saturday.

Oxford Dictionary defines a metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.” Two cognitive linguists, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their 1980 seminal book, Metaphors we live by, argued that metaphors are not just mere literary short cuts to spice up conversations but rather cognitive tools used by people to make sense of the world.  We are all metaphorical creatures. Our everyday conversations are filled with metaphors but we are not usually aware of them until it is pointed out to us. Once I made the MBA students aware of their metaphors; they started noticing it in each other’s contributions during the classroom discussions.

Metaphors are powerful because they influence both our perception (how we see the world) and our action (the way we act or behave). How you see the world determines the way you act or behave.

Organisations are complex and we draw references from various sources to make sense of them.

Some common metaphorical sources used in the business world include:

  • Military (war) Metaphors e.g. ‘kill/crush the competition’, ‘we need to have a meeting to plan our marketing strategies and tactics”,’to capture a slice of the market share’, ‘develop a marketing campaign’, ‘The CEO attacked every weak argument of the presentation’.  There is usually some level of aggression when the military/war metaphors are used. The outcome tends to measured in terms of victory or defeat.
  • Sports Metaphors e.g. ‘Kick off’, ‘On target’, ‘In pole position’, ‘Jump the gun’, ‘Ballpark figure’, ‘Neck and neck’, ‘The ball is in our court’, ‘Take our eye off the ball. These are common sports metaphors used in business organisations.
  • Medical Metaphors e.g. ‘a crippled economy’, ‘an acute crisis of the financial systems’, ‘the organisation’s health will need a long time to recover fully’, the manager intends to work on the chronic problems which have afflicted his department’, ‘decision making has become paralysed and ineffective hence urgent action is needed’

One limitation of metaphors is what Gareth Morgan in his book, Images of Organization,  calls the partiality of insight. Metaphors operate by highlighting certain aspects of something while hiding other aspects of it as well. A single metaphor only provides a partial view instead of the full view. A good illustration of this partiality of insight is the poem, ‘The blind men and the elephant’, by John Godfrey Saxe (refer to slides below and this 2012 blog post for more about this poem).

This is the danger of letting one single dominant metaphor frame the way you see the world rather than adopting multiple ones. The reason why it is very important to be aware of the metaphors which influence or guide your worldview because they have the power to determine the decisions you make and the actions that you take.

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