The Impact Of Hidden Organisational Metaphors

If your organisation was a person, what kind of person would it be? Lean and Agile? Or something different?

Our metaphors have profound implications – but they’re often invisible. That’s because metaphor is the native language of the unconscious mind, the atom of thought. Our minds are so awash with metaphors that we hardly notice them.

And these anthropomorphic metaphors, in which we liken the organisation to a person, seem especially elusive.

We simply don’t notice them. And yet they colour our thinking and our conversations very subtly, like background lighting. They might give things a rosy glow or a blue mood…

When Gareth Morgan’s classic 1997 work Images Of Organization highlighted eight common ways people talk about organisations, none of them were explicitly anthropomorphic:

  1. A machine
  2. An organism
  3. A brain
  4. A “culture”
  5. A political system
  6. A psychic prison
  7. Change or flux
  8. An instrument of domination…

I’m now wondering if that’s because his research wasn’t set up to find anthropomorphic metaphors. Because I’m seeing them everywhere right now!

For example, in an inspiring talk at Aginext recently, my friend Andrea Provaglio drew attention to machine vs organism metaphors for organisations, and how they might relate to scaling Agile. The theme here was similar to this blog post of mine from last year.

And, an anthropomorphic metaphor he offered gave me a deeper insight. He said: “Imagine that you’re walking on a mountain and the fog comes down so you can’t see. What do you do? Fight, flight or freeze?

“What if traditional organisations are like that, in that they can’t see where they’re going? They don’t have effective interfaces with the outside world, or internally between departments. And then they get scared…” (I’m paraphrasing. My notes aren’t perfect.)

Andrea suggested that in these circumstances, organisations would be likely to display certain behaviours which he categorised as “obfuscation”: hoarding information, muddled communication, scapegoating and blaming, buck-passing, excessive bureaucracy and so on. They made perfect sense if an organisation was like a frightened person lost in fog. And given that, what kind of actions might help…?

Then another friend involved in organisational change shared another anthropomorphic metaphor for organisations. Maaike Nooitgedagt wrote about whether an organisation could be “too lean”, like an anorexic person.

Yes, “lean” implies an anthropomorphic metaphor. So does “Agile”. As do many of the words we use to describe organisations: friendly, fun, formal, faceless, frantic, focussed, fighting, fragile… and that’s just the Fs.

These aren’t necessarily anthropomorphic: “lean” might refer to a cow, I suppose. “Agile” might refer to a monkey.

A few well-placed Clean Language questions would soon tease that out, helping the speaker to become aware of the metaphor which was underpinning their thinking, and so probably driving their behaviour.

And when they do become aware of that background lighting, and the effect it’s been having, they have the option to change things.

  • What anthropomorphic metaphors for organisations have you spotted? And what effects do they have? Please comment below.


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