Metaphors pepper every workplace’s internal communications, whether picking the low hanging fruit, riding out the storm or rallying the troops. They tap into a person’s ‘prior knowledge’ and the right ones can spark activity in regions of the brain making messages more memorable or inspiring. It can also be used by CIOs to draw information from staff they wouldn’t otherwise reveal.
Although we often use them without thinking, they should be used with care. As per studies, managers can change team members’ perspectives and have a negative effect on project outcomes when they use metaphors from certain themes.
Prepare for battle
Researchers from Aalto University in Helsinki and Copenhagen Business School examined the metaphors used by different project team members for a study in 2016. The team members included stakeholders, software developers and managers working on a major public sector IT project in Finland. They recorded a diverse collection of metaphors being used by those on the project and then categorized them by theme. The themes of the metaphors used were found to change depending on an individual’s job role and at what phase of the project they were interviewed. The researchers noted that many of the project members had been involved in previous efforts in the same domain, so it is possible that the long and weary previous projects had prepared the participants for a long and difficult ‘battle’. The project employees were bonding as a unit while travelling together while the managers were mentally readying themselves for ‘battles’, using many metaphors related to everyday life.
However, managers ditched the war talk for other metaphor themes including religion during the design and implementation phases of the project. The developers during these phases adopted the war metaphors, and the researchers suggest the managers’ use of war-metaphors spread rapidly through informal conversation. The spread of these metaphors can be far more insidious than if they were part of the official change strategy because these metaphors were not brought up in official meetings or written in protocols. The spread of metaphors, in any case, changed the ‘sensemaking’ among workers.
Metaphors from alternate themes might be safer, the researchers suggest. For example, family metaphor can highlight that people with different goals can coexist in a project, suggesting the importance of political negotiations, consensus building and compromise as family members can disagree but still be supportive of each other.
However, battle-talk can be used to get staff rallied behind a single aim. Experts talk of ‘patriots and mercenaries’ when describing an in-sourcing strategy. Patriots are those that are fighting for their homeland, and they say it’s really important to shift the workforce around that and build a technology organisation that is filled with patriots.