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Choose Your Workplace Metaphors Wisely!

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.

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