Robert Frost once said, “Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world.”
The great poet was referring to the power of metaphors to subtly shape the way we think, feel, and act. In organizational life, metaphors abound. We speak of putting out fires, having our ducks in order, dealing with leaky pipelines, or entering a war room.
But every workplace metaphor is tied to a larger conception of organizational life. Metaphors have action tendencies that are both beneficial and limiting. Used well, they can open possibilities and galvanize teams. Misused, they can negatively impact a company’s culture.
Here are a few common workplace metaphor types along with their potential benefits and limitations:
🪖 Army Metaphor
• Example: “Boots on the ground” / “War rooms” / “Deadlines”
• Potential Benefits: Mission-driven; creates a sense of resilience and camaraderie
• Potential Limitations: Vertical communication; uniformity of thought; limited autonomy; overly masculine values
🏀 Sports Team Metaphor
• Example: “Knock it out of the park” / “Slam dunk” / “Score”
• Potential Benefits: Results-driven; goal-oriented; emphasis on teamwork
• Potential Limitations: Commodifies employees; normalizes tough (even abusive) “coaching” by leaders
🚸 Community Metaphor
• Example: “We’re a community”
• Potential Benefits: A sense of belonging; supportive; shared beliefs and values; relatively flat
• Potential Limitations: Noisier, messier, and slower decision-making; mismatched standard of fairness (need vs contribution)
🚢 Ship Metaphor
• Example: “All hands on deck” / “Onboarding” / “Stay the course”
• Potential Benefits: Tightly run; efficient; destination oriented
• Potential Limitations: Hierarchical; less room for innovation; icebergs
👨👩👧👦 Family Metaphor
• Example: “We’re one big family”
• Potential Benefits: A sense of belonging; supportive; accepting of differences
• Potential Limitations: Paternalistic; incongruent with transactional business norms
(e.g. promotion & firing); employee guilt over negotiating for greater benefits or leaving
🛠️ Machine Metaphor
• Example: “Well-oiled machine” / “Humming along” / “Leaky pipelines”
• Potential Benefits: Efficient; predictable; effective
• Potential Limitations: Overly bureaucratic; uniformity of thought; dehumanizing
Keep in mind, the “right” metaphors will be different for each company at different times. Family metaphors, for example, might work for new, small companies, while machine metaphors might work better for larger, established ones.
Either way (⚠️METAPHOR ALERT⚠️), metaphors are a tool that effective leaders must wield wisely.