Thrive! The role of metaphors … Part 2

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Thrive! The role of metaphors … Part 2

In the first Part of this series, Sonja spoke of how the current economic malaise is prompting us to engage with a new management paradigm. She also surfaced a metaphor (moving from being a builder to gardener) as an analogy for what we believe the new paradigm should be. It might have struck as a rather simple analogy, but we believe metaphors have a greater influence on our attitudes, values and behaviours than we give them credit for.

argument1227837759Metaphors uncover the basic assumptions driving behaviour and they assist us in making sense of the world we operate in, or in other words, metaphors surface our values. In essence a metaphor is the use of language that directly connects seemingly unrelated subjects, they allow us to “hook” a complex new idea to a simpler but similar idea we’re already familiar with.  Metaphors are also flexible enough to accommodate multiple perspectives on the world, and thus, multiple and varied applications of the lessons contained within a metaphor.

In our everyday language there are many examples of metaphors …
o    Winning an argument – the metaphor for an argument is war or competition
o    Time is money – the value of time is evident as it’s likened to currency
o    Life as a journey (as opposed to a race)

A root or base metaphor is one which is so embedded within a language or culture that it is often not realized as being a metaphor – it is a part of our everyday language. Another definition of a root metaphor is that it is a metaphor from which other metaphors spring.   Thus, if we use the metaphor of a ‘mountain’ for a problem, it can spawn other metaphors such as ‘caves’ for hidden areas, ‘peaks’ for targets, ‘undergrowth’ for obscuring noise, etc.

We are of the opinion that there is a root metaphor within any human system that determines and communicates how people behave in the system. Root metaphors are living concepts; they change and adapt over time. Sometimes though, a root metaphor becomes so entrenched in a system that it limits the system’s ability to evolve and for people to change their behaviour

Unrealized or unconscious metaphors are especially dangerous as they can constrain thinking and behavior. For example the metaphor of ‘argument as war or competition’ pushes us towards an idea that a succesful argument is one where the opponent is beaten into submission through aggressive action. ‘Time as money’ makes us think about time as currency e.g. how we ‘spend’ time and how we should be ‘economical’ with it.

Margaret Wheatley describes how we deal with complex problems in these terms, “Too many problem-solving sessions become battlegrounds where decisions are made based on power rather than intelligence.”

Wheatley highlights the language used to describe problem solving. We “attack the problem,” “tackle the issue,” “take a stab at it,” “wrestle it to the ground,” “get on top of it,” “eliminate it.” If colleagues argue with us, we complain that they “shot down my idea,” “took pot shots at me,” “used me for target practice,” or that “I got killed.” In the face of opposition, we “back down,” “retreat” or “regroup.” Wheatley points out that such aggressive descriptions of problem solving point to a startling conclusion. We experience problem-solving sessions as war zones, we view competing ideas as enemies, and we use problems as weapons to blame and defeat opposition forces.

The base metaphor in the face of complex problems is evident: war.

We are not sure that the war base-metaphor is the most helpful in dealing with today’s complexities. Seeing the turmoil as a war may win us some short-term economic battles, but the overall war will be lost if we do not take a different approach in adapting.

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