Coaching and organisations – the metaphorical dimension

As executive coaches, listening out for the ways in which clients use metaphors in their business systems, can provide valuable insight. It gives information, data that can be drawn up to the surface of their thinking and evaluated, kept or changed.

Metaphors are littered throughout our everyday language. They are rooted throughout great literature, poetry, within our cultural history and tucked into the stories that we pass on. They are contained in our conversations, our gossip, in the news, advertising and digital media. They are also uniquely woven into the cultures of all organisations.

The definition of a metaphor by Merriam-Webster is:

“A figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money).”

All companies or institutions have their own cultural language which will contain a smattering of metaphors which are the backdrop of many everyday conversations. The language and its associations have a life of their own and become:

‘How things are seen, done and talked about around here.’

The metaphors and their influence are then rarely questioned or evaluated.

Organisational language is full of metaphors

An awareness and the ability to hold the metaphor lightly (even if it is just for a while) and to robustly question its current right to remain within organisation or team culture can be a potentially transformational coaching intervention.  We can as executive coaches, offer clients a choice as to whether these are how they want to continue looking at the situation or the person. A reframe may be necessary.

Examples of how organisations use metaphors to describe their business include:

  • We work like hamsters on wheels that we can’t get off
  • This business area is ripe for the picking
  • Sales have shot through the roof
  • We are in a hole here
  • Our backs are against the wall
  • We are being taken to the cleaners by our competitors
  • Hold your nerve during this business downturn
  • Let’s outcompete our competitors
  • This is silo department thinking
  • We need to step out of our comfort zone and find new markets
  • Let’s create a flat organisation
  • Restructure this company and recreate a new market footprint
  • Get the right people on the bus
  • Thinking out of the box
  • This company is a sweatshop
  • We can build the sales back up again

During coaching sessions, opportunities arise for coaches to challenge and invite the client to define the ‘truth’ that the metaphor holds in the system at this time. This can then provide the platform for clients to find a different metaphor that more aptly describes the change or new reality that they may want to bring about.

Job titles and roles (official and unofficial) often contain metaphors

Even roles have metaphorical associations, captured within their official job titles (and in the unofficial titles or nicknames). They reveal how the company values the role and therefore how the people perform or react within that system.

Examples of how metaphors are used to describe organisational roles are:

Warriors, sherpas, queen bees, black belts, green belts, troopers, high flyers, shining stars, bean counters, dead wood, mavericks, mover and shapers, finders, minders, grinders and rain makers.

The label often influences personal perceptions and behaviours, as well as how others interact and relate.

Gareth Morgan’s organisational metaphors

I recommend reading more of the author Gareth Morgan’s work on this topic.

Gareth Morgan says that organisations are complex, in his book, Images of Organization. (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications Inc, 1986) He suggests a useful way of understanding them can be to see them from a number of perspectives and says.

“All theories of organisation and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us to see, understand, and imagine situations in partial ways. Metaphors create insight. But they also distort. They have strengths. But they also have limitations. In creating ways of seeing, they create ways of not seeing. Hence there can be no single theory or metaphor that gives an all-purpose point of view. There can be no ‘correct theory’ for structuring everything we do.”

Morgan, Gareth, Images of Organisation, Sage, 1986/1997. P. 348

Originally, he set out what has subsequently become known as ‘Morgan’s eight metaphors’.
He describes organisations as:

Machines – which dominates modern management thinking and which is typical of bureaucracies
Organisms – entities that have an emphasis growth, adaptation and environmental relations
Brains – organisations which are information processors and who value knowledge and learning
Cultures – values-based institutions with an emphasis on norms, beliefs, rituals and symbols
Political systems – where self-interest, conflict and power issues predominate
Psychic prisons – oganisations where people are trapped by their mindsets
Systems of flux – ones that can adapt and change responsively
Instruments of domination – entities with the emphasis on exploitation and imposing your will on others

In a more recent work, Gareth Morgan has also suggested organisations can be referenced to using an extra three metaphors:

Termites – individual builders, creating their small patch of the colony with no blueprint or ‘masterplan’
Spider plants – self-replicating agents reproducing the same sort of entity wherever and whenever they can
Blobs of water – flexible, fluid, adaptive entities that fill the space according to the circumstances
(Morgan, G. (1993). Imaginization: The art of creative management. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.).

As executive coaches, we can help our clients to identify their own organisational metaphors, by delving into them and examining them closely. We can challenge clients to think differently. We can encourage new or radical perspectives that can be exchanged for old paradigms or outmoded ways of perceiving and interacting with a shifting cultural or commercial landscape.

Metaphors are also part of personal brand and your client’s business credibility

Metaphors will also nestle inside how clients talk about themselves. They influence how they create their team’s reputation and success. Metaphors build brand. They are reflected in everyday life and in the images that constantly surround us in advertising and social media. Metaphors are often memorable, hold our attention and call us to action.

For example, the design ‘tick on Nike trainers and the tag line ‘Just do it’ can produce a positive trigger for action and greater fitness resolve. The Mac apple on phone and computers represents quality, beautiful design and evokes the desire to own and use cutting edge technology. When music is added to the image and set to foster emotions, we respond accordingly. Feelings can instantly sweep through us in response to what we are seeing and hearing in that moment.

The double association is part of the art and effectiveness of the way in which advertising shapes our desires and our perceived needs. Metaphor helps to build brands and public recognition. Brands contain powerful images or metaphorical messaging that evoke strong symbolic associations for us and can take on a life of their own.

Most leaders whatever their role, can learn from the way in which metaphors are used in branding and business marketing. They are added into the mix, in order to purposefully influence and evoke intentional responses and outcomes. Clients can thoughtfully use metaphorical language to enhance their messaging with colour, directness and simplicity.

Metaphorical awareness therefore and the link to effective communication needs to be part of a leader’s strengths. The power to influence and inspire in a compelling way may include more metaphorical literacy and application for your clients.

Building up your awareness as a coach

The process of skilfully working with metaphors in coaching starts with a heightened awareness of your use of metaphors as an executive coach. You may be using a variety of metaphors to describe your practice or how you coach.

You may perhaps, be using these metaphors without thinking much about them in your coaching sessions. Actively tracking when they show up can be beneficial. Your metaphors reveal your unconscious pathways and patterns, so it can be useful to understand the metaphorical habits in your language or the images that you slip into the coaching conversation without even realising it.

These metaphors will have an influence in the meeting. Conscious awareness can lead to being more ‘choice full’ and careful in how you use metaphor to support, rather than hinder your effectiveness as a coach.

Secondly, listening out for your clients’ metaphors in your coaching conversations means that you can more effectively track their frequency, energy and the emotional qualities that lie within them. It will increase your chances of spotting a possible learning or potent insight that one powerful metaphor may be holding for your client.

A powerful coaching question

One of the important questions, an executive coach can ask of a client is:

“What do you and the team you lead want to be known for?”

This is a question that goes right to the heart of the leader’s brand and to the reputation of those that are being led. It reaches into what success and delivery for their business needs. It shapes reputational effectiveness.

Astute decisions about the metaphors that will support your client’s communication is time well spent in a coaching session. Finding the right metaphors that evoke inspiration and engagement in others, can provide enough a crucial and valuable step in building up leadership gravitas and impact.

If you are an executive coach who wants to become more skillful at identifying and working in a transformational way with organisational metaphors, contact Jude Elliman or Nick Isbister.