If you work in corporate Australia, chances are you've heard one this week. Whether picking the low hanging fruit, riding out the storm or rallying the troops; metaphors pepper every workplace’s internal communications.
Metaphors tap into ‘prior knowledge’ and the right ones can spark activity in regions of the brain making messages more memorable or inspiring. CIOs can also use them to draw information from staff they wouldn't otherwise reveal.
We often use them without thinking, but they should be used with care. Studies have shown when managers use metaphors from certain themes; they can change team members’ perspectives, and have a negative effect on project outcomes.
Prepare for battle
In a 2016 study, researchers from Aalto University in Helsinki and Copenhagen Business School examined the metaphors used by different project team members – 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, which they categorised by theme. The researchers discovered that the themes of the metaphors used changed depending on an individual’s job role and at what phase of the project they were interviewed.
For example, during the requirements phase of the three year, records management system project, managers often used war-related phrases; like ‘setting up border fences’, there being different ‘camps’, and ‘preparing for battle’. The developers on the other hand tended to use family-related phrases like team members being ‘like a married couple’ and ‘honeymoon period’ or else used journey-related metaphors like ‘down the path’, ‘back tracking’ and ‘moving train’.
“Many of the project members had been involved in previous efforts in the same domain…It is possible that the long and weary previous projects had prepared the participants for a long and difficult ‘battle’,” the researchers wrote.
“While the managers were mentally readying themselves for ‘battles’, the project employees were bonding as a unit while travelling together, using many metaphors related to everyday life,” they continued.
During the design and implementation phases of the project, however, managers ditched the war talk for other metaphor themes including religion (a costings document was referred to as ‘the Holy Word’), nature (some devs were ‘on another planet’) and games (‘shadowboxing’ and ‘acting as a referee’).
The developers during these phases adopted the war metaphors, and spoke of ‘picking their battles’, ‘civil war’, being ‘shot at’, and ‘bombs falling’.
The researchers suggest the managers’ use of war-metaphors spread rapidly through informal conversation.
“Because these metaphors were not brought up in official meetings or written in protocols, their spread can be far more insidious than if they were part of the official change strategy,” they wrote.
In any case, the spread of metaphors changed the ‘sensemaking’ among workers. For example, “because the war metaphor entails winners and losers, it can lead to threats, coercion and manipulation and is, overall, destructive by nature,” the researchers wrote.
The researchers suggest metaphors from alternate themes might be safer.
For instance, “the family metaphor can highlight that people with different goals can co‐exist in a project. This suggests the importance of political negotiations, consensus building and compromise – family members can disagree but still be supportive of each other,” they wrote.
Battle-talk can be used to get staff rallied behind a single aim, however. Speaking to CIO Australia last year, NAB’s chief technology and operations officer Patrick Wright spoke of ‘patriots and mercenaries’ when describing an in-sourcing strategy.
“Patriots are those that are fighting for their homeland. I think it’s really important as we shift our workforce around that we build a technology organisation that is filled with patriots,” he said.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.