Corporate America has not, in my experience, been particularly adept at choosing its metaphors. Having spent most of my working life in corporate settings, I have seen how war and sport metaphors dominate discourse, resulting in competitive environments—even cutthroat, to the detriment of the company. I believe we can use a better set of metaphors having to do with the telling of stories.
Evidence of the power of metaphors to influence our lives is everywhere. To take one recent example, the phrase “fiscal cliff” worked its way into daily conversations in 2012 from its use by politicians, the media, and the investment community to describe a combination of expiring tax breaks and across-the-board government budget cuts. This phrase lent to public discourse a sense of impending doom that roiled the stock market and inhibited political will.
I had to ask myself: What if a different metaphor had been used? How might things have been different if instead of facing a fiscal cliff, the nation faced a fiscal fork in the road? Would that have made us think differently about making tough decisions instead of bringing to mind some kind of Thelma and Louise moment?
Forrest Gump’s life might have been quite different if his mother had said, “Life is a nest of snakes” instead of the memorable catch phrase, “Life is a box of chocolates.” (This potential difference is noted by Jeffrey L. Zimmerman and Victoria C. Dickerson in their book If Problems Talked: Narrative Therapy in Action [Guilford Press 1996]).
Metaphors not only reflect our internal maps for making meaning, but they also shape decisions and actions; they even, over time, form our identities.
Metaphors are everywhere—and for good reason. They are a potent form of communicating. A large part of Shakepeare’s genius was his gift for metaphor. Metaphors often seem to direct action because they are physical or “in the body,” in the phrase of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, the authors of Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 1980).
Bringing in the metaphors of narrative and story conveys an orderly, sequential structure that is linear but also an alive and dynamic “whole.” Saying to an individual or a group that “we will use story and narrative to better understand who we are as individuals and as a group” creates room for curiosity and exploration. It brings life and flexibility to leadership development efforts. It brings the fun vibe of exploration.
Working with narrative and story as a coach and consultant, I have found that these approaches yield vastly different results than those coming out of methods using machine-based metaphors for business organizations, which tend to result in repair and fix-it solutions with left-to-right “input – output” models. Similarly, game-based metaphors often translate into strategy and counter-strategy models and methodologies. I could go on.
As you’re thinking about your own story, think about the metaphors you use in telling it. They may be limiting your thinking—and potential.