Watch Your Language! Why Metaphors Matter in Management


“Good news. The test results show it’s a metaphor.”

It’s another launch of another strategic plan to the company’s senior and middle managers and the CEO is rattling on about “roadmaps” and “blueprints” that will generate “traction” in the market and “buy-in” from the employees. The employees are watching politely, but I can see that they aren’t engaged by the message and that their “shields” are “up”. No wonder; the kinds of images that the CEO’s language is evoking are mechanical ones of top-down control. If you have a roadmap for a journey, that implies that you know where you are going and that there is a clear route to be followed; blueprints are usually designs for machines and they suggest that we have a detailed design for the project and that all we have to do is build it according to specifications. The roadmap and blueprint images both imply that little creative input or learning is expected from the employees; they just have to follow directions. And the “buy-in” metaphor indicates that no commitment on the part of employees is needed either – it just an economic transaction.

“That’s ridiculous!” I can here some readers mutter, “…‘roadmap’ and ‘blueprint’ are just figures of speech.” Yes, they are “figures of speech” but their impact is far from trivial. Indeed I think that their power is far greater than most managers realize and it drives me crazy to hear the careless use of such a potentially powerful feature of language as the metaphor. I can still remember how depressed I felt when the CEO of the company that had acquired us described himself and his senior team as “guns for hire”; the image of mercenary killers was totally at odds with the culture of commitment that we were trying to build in our organization.

The view of the role of metaphor in management practice has been an erratic one. The reform of the business schools in the late 1950s was greatly influenced by the views of analytic philosophy, which emphasized conceptual clarity and formal logic and had no time for metaphorical language. This began to change in the late 1970s, with the appearance of Burrell and Morgan’s Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis, which used Thomas Kuhn’s concept of the paradigm to suggest that there were radically different ways of framing organizations and their issues. Subsequently Gareth Morgan went on to write about the critical role that metaphors play in this framing process in his well-known book, Images of Organization. He explored organizations as machines, as organisms, as brains and as psychic prisons among other analogies. Each of these metaphors revealed some insights but concealed others and none was comprehensive.

An Ecological Perspective on Metaphors

From an ecological perspective, with its assumptions of ecological rationality and an embodied mind, metaphor is fundamental to language, because all language is based upon our bodily experience of the world. In 1980, in their famous book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson showed that metaphors are central to meaning and understanding. Later, in 1999, they wrote Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, which opened with the three major findings of cognitive science:

  • The mind is inherently embodied
  • Thought is mostly unconscious
  • Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical

The evidence from research in the cognitive sciences since then has continued to support these findings and has expanded upon them. It suggests that the analytic philosophy upon which the reforms of the business schools were based was quite wrong in several of its key assumptions, including the literal theory of language and meaning.

The implications of this new thinking have yet to find their way into management theory…So what are the “bottom line” “takeaways” for managers? Here are a few:

  • All language is metaphorical and based on bodily experience
  • Metaphors and their meanings are absorbed unconsciously by listeners and readers
  • Be aware of the metaphors that your sources and references use and what they entail; what they reveal and what they conceal
  • Be aware of the metaphors you use and their implications, especially when it comes to understanding cause-and-effect in complex systems
  • The word “metaphor” comes from the Greek words meta (beyond) + pherein (carry – it’s where “ferry” comes from). So it means literally to “carry beyond”. Thus understanding and using metaphors is critical for creativity and innovation and thinking “out of the box”, to carry us beyond the commonplace.
  • The central tension in management is between organic and mechanical analogies of organization. This is not a problem to be solved but a dilemma to be lived. So make sure that your language lives it! Be aware of the context in which you use metaphors – investors might like imagery that shows you to be firmly in charge of a money machine; most employees will want to be part of something organic.

Aristotle wrote in Poetics “the greatest thing by far is to have command of metaphor.”  I think that’s also true for managers and leaders. In management metaphors really matter.

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One Response to Watch Your Language! Why Metaphors Matter in Management

  1. warren says:

    An excellent dissertation David. You have reminded of many ‘leaders’ who
    continually use ‘metaphoric’ language, continually, with no substance:
    Whether guttural or euphonious, or somewhere in between. Think of the political leaders who continually use the phrase, “We must move forward”,
    which almost seems a standard phrase in every State of the Union address
    by every American President, as one example. Then their becomes instances
    of the ‘word of the day’. When Donald Rumsfeld kept using the word ‘quagmire’
    to explain certain situations in the Iraq War – the word was continually
    used by television hosts, reporters, politicians, and people in power, to
    describe any and every problematic situation that arose.

    The power and influence of words upon the psyche cannot be underestimated.
    Choosing our words thoughtfully and with utmost respect and consideration
    for purposes of clear and concise communication and expectations is becoming
    less and less of a practice (aside from those leaders and people using their
    words and phrases deliberately and metaphorically, intending to give no clear
    substance for purposes communicating feel good words and phrases, with no
    concrete meaning)

    Contrary, whether intentionally psychologically thought through or not, there
    are leaders and people who use words and phrases with direct and meaningful
    metaphoric language, stirring up internal beliefs. ‘Targeting’ districts on a
    web site for removal of political rivals, with crosshairs, is an example of
    an appeal to gun owners and those completely dissatisfied with the liberal

    In the business world, there are continual used phrases, which have become
    annoying: ‘The customer comes first’; ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease’;
    ‘You got to get out there and make a buck’; ‘Let’s look at the big picture’;
    ‘You are missing the forest for the trees’; ‘It takes a buck to make a buck’;
    ‘You catch more bees with honey’…..and on and on.

    Even Psychological Theory on these and other issues has given way to metaphors and the information age, where our brains and thoughts are now
    referred to by theorists and the public as ‘programmed’ in no small way by
    our environment, reducing our brains and thoughts to no more than programmed
    bits and bytes. Without getting into a debate on this topic alone, one could
    argue it has more to do with Reinforcement than Programming (with respect to
    theory), but then one could also argue that Reinforcement came about itself
    by (Skinner) and his time and place, in the ‘metaphoric world’.

    The point: We must be aware, and ‘make’ ourselves ever more aware of how
    words have the power to influence ours and others thoughts and actions.
    We must continually question, test, and examine words and thoughts for
    truths, falsehoods, hidden, intended and non-intended meanings. And hopefully, we use words with the intention of making ours and others lives
    better, not worse, and avoid using words and phrases for simple self gain
    and manipulating others.