Blog & Insight

Does your organisation act as if it's in a war or in a garden? What about you?

How do you experience your life?

  • An up hill battle
  • Plain sailing
  • A fight for life or death
  • Like a rose
  • A battle to be won at all costs
  • An open road
  • Being captain of the star ship Enterprise
  • A war - with constant battles 
  • A race - and if so is it the 100m or a marathon
  • A river - and if so where in the river are you - high in the mountains, moving through the rapids or headed for the edge of a waterfall or just arriving at the ocean

I promise it's not that daft a question.

If you've not read anything yet that resonates please have a think before reading further. You might even want to have a look at my Pinterest board with other suggestions on metaphors we use for life including:

  • A garden
  • A cup of tea
  • An echo
  • A flute
  • A machine
  • A musical 
  • A vacation
  • A canvas

I promise it's not a daft question.

To make sense of the world you relate to life in terms of metaphors. It's these metaphors that set the tone for your life and your relationships with others. They're a bit like your own in-built operating manual - with rules that unconsciously help you decide what you will and won't do - without having to think about it.

Let's compare the difference between three very different metaphors and notice the impact they might have on how you live your life:

Of course, my own internal metaphor(s) will be impacting how I present the above. In other words, you may have found yourself disagreeing with my interpretation, and putting a different slant on them. Even that is useful insight in how we all come at situations differently.

The point is, you will have metaphors (scripts) that determine how you tackle your day, the decisions you make and how you do what you do and how you relate to and judge others. It's how you are able make so many decisions so quickly every day ie simply deciding what action best fits the metaphor you’re operating within. For example: 

  • Someone usually operating within a war metaphor could find compassion very difficult and possibly even a sign of weakness. If forced to do so their interpretation would be made using the metaphor – so compassion could either be explained away as doing it under duress, or even as purely a tactic to win the war!
  • Someone operating within a machine metaphor would be unlikely to be able to show any compassion - as it's not a facet able to be fitted into the metaphor. 
  • Compassion would however come much more easily and naturally to someone operating within a garden metaphor.

The key is knowing the preferences you have for certain metaphors within certain contexts, and understanding the strengths and weaknesses they bring with them.

For example, my preference for a garden metaphor means I back off from competition, conflict and don't like to be told what to do about things I'm an expert in, nor having too many processes and procedures to follow. At times all things I need to be able to effectively handle and flex my metaphor to be able to do.

What about organisational metaphors?

Organisations also have underlying metaphors. Metaphors that enable staff to understand how to act in any situation, without being overtly told how to act in that situation - for example:

  • War: life and death situation, defence, lots of battles, winning at all costs, troops
  • Race: start and finish, winning and losing, competitors
  • Family: support, nurture, family members
  • Gardening: nurturing, seeds, growth, harvest, gardener, weeds
  • Game: players, rules, wining, losing, competition
  • Journey: hero, destination, steps, endurance, challenges, baddies
  • Machine: components, specification, output, efficiency, standardisation

Again, my personal metaphor will be impacting my ability to adequately describe some of the above, you may therefore find you have additional descriptions for each of the above metaphors.

The operational metaphor impacts everything an organisation does ie the organisational hierarchy, power structures, communication, routines adopted and stories told about success, failure and learning. It's why new leadership teams find it difficult to impose new ways of working - especially if their metaphor contradicts the existing metaphor in operation in all corners of the organisation.

You may want to spend some time considering what stories might get told within an operating metaphor of war vs one of gardening. What about the power symbols how may they differ dependant on the metaphor, or the organisational structure or routines people adopt. What about communication between different metaphors:

  • A war metaphor talking to someone with a family metaphor - the family person certainly won't feel very valued nor understand the need for such conflict (unless you can link the war to survival of the family).
  • A race metaphor talking to someone with a metaphor of the journey - impatience is likely to play a part here. The level of preparation they think is needed would look very different too.
  • A machine metaphor talking to someone with a metaphor of a garden - oh dear the machines just not going to get the laissez faire attitude of the gardener to his seeds, as he leaves them to fend for themselves knowing they'll all turn out unique yet perfect in every way!

Understanding the metaphor in operation means you can amend your communication and message. It's back to the language analogy - you can either continue to talk in different languages, and muddle through hoping you understood each other correctly, or try to speak the same language.

Have you ever considered the metaphor you run whilst at work?

How does that align with the team in which you work, and the overall organisation?

What about the suppliers you deal with, or other stakeholders?

I’ve worked with a number of people who have a personal metaphor which is not aligned with others at work. Personally my gardening metaphor means I find it difficult to work in an environment where there are winners and losers, or too much competition. What about you?

The challenge then is to adapt your style of communication to the metaphor in which you're operating - you may be surprised when you've paid attention and amended your message - and may just find the board suddenly embracing your strategies more easily.

Do let me know how you get on.

If you'd like your team to understand more about thinking differently and seeing situations from a wider variety of perspectives do get in touch [email protected] +44(0)7770 538159


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© Alison Smith
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