Metaphorically speaking


Gregory Bateson said:

“Metaphor, that’s how the whole fabric of mental interconnections holds together. Metaphor is right at the bottom of being alive.” (cited in Capra, ‘Uncommon wisdom’)

When you start to listen out, you discover that people use metaphors all the time. It’s how we map out our world and make sense of it. Gareth Morgan in ‘Images of Organization’ examines organisations through various metaphors: the organisation as a machine, an organism, a brain, a culture, a psychic prison, a political system, as flux and transformation, and an instrument of domination. Each metaphor affects the way the organisation is perceived, because our attention is drawn to certain aspects of the analogy, while others are ignored.

Metaphor is inherently paradoxical. It can create powerful insights that help us to comprehend. However, metaphors can also become distortions. The particular way of seeing created through the metaphor becomes a way of not seeing other aspects.

Mintzberg and his colleagues preface their ‘safari’ through the various schools of thought on organisational strategy with the fable of the six blind men who encounter an elephant at close quarters. Each describes their perception of the animal from where they stand, and so each has a partial understanding of the whole beast. In this sense, each of the main theories of organisations is based on a partial view through a particular ‘lens’ of understanding, closely tied to its time and place in history.

It’s not just organisations which use metaphors. Individuals do too. Each of us has created a very distinctive way of looking at the world and our use of language reflects our (partial) understanding. This is where language can slip up on black ice. What you mean by a word or sentence may create a very different picture in my head. Misunderstandings can create accidental collisions, injuries and occasional big freezes when one person assumes s/he knows exactly what the other person is talking about.

One solution is to take the time and trouble to ‘put some meat on the bones’ of our conversations (see what I did there?). Another is to by-pass language altogether and use a drawing or symbols to gain a common understanding of the situation.


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