Why we use metaphors and when we shouldn’t. 

A business metaphor has it’s uses. But like building a sandcastle there is much fun to be had in knocking it down. 

Metaphors are used to capture attention and explain complex things by comparing them to something familiar to the audience.  The business metaphors chosen often have nothing new to say and are just a different way of saying it. 

These metaphors tends to look for parallels when we would learn more by focusing on the troubling differences. Military metaphors are common but business is not like war. However strategic, combative and targeted business is it is not about life and death. 

I am guilty of writing articles that use the Mafia and the film the Godfather as a business metaphor. I have recently referenced Star Trek and the Borg to explain the difference between integration and assimilation in organisations striving to promote equality and diversity. I favour sports metaphors particularly football. Clearly organised crime is not simply an extension of normal business practices minus the violence. The illegal drugs trade and gang culture is about money, power, loyalty and betrayal which may make for comparisons with the board room but the context is completely different. The Premiere League with its language of league tables, performance, motivation and focus on charismatic leaders is so prevalent in the media it’s hard to resist making comparison with other business. But the funding and business model of clubs is based on making a loss and only being viable due to the ,” generosity” of Russian Oligarchs or a policy of sports wash by totalitarian regimes. 

Military metaphors may convey , urgency, passion, resilience and leadership but they also convey aggression, unquestioning obedience and the end justifies the means morality when what businesses need is to cooperate, to encourage initiative, to negotiate and to be ethical. A similar comments could be made about comparing the violent world of organised crime and how successful businesses operate. When it comes to sport comparing the successful leadership styles of managers like Brian Clough or Alex Ferguson is more interesting than relevant,  the fact is the age of the charismatic leader in business has had it’s day.

The use of business metaphors can paint a picture that the audience can immediately relate to. Metaphors need to be used with caution if mixed messages are not to be sent to employees and partner agencies/organisations hence current thinking that military metaphors are best avoided. The metaphor rarely gives a new insight but there is value in finding a different ways of saying the same thing. Finally  deconstructing a popular business metaphor can be a helpful aid to understanding. 


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