Why Metaphors Matter in the Workplace

July 7, 2017

Why Metaphors Matter in the Workplace

High-stress situations in the workplace can be high-wire acts for employees and managers. Whether adapting to a new leadership team and philosophy, or handling the consequences of a corporate merger or consolidation, change can trigger an unsettling sense of uncertainty and anxiety.


Effective communication in times of challenging transition can be essential to weathering the storm. Metaphors can provide the tools to navigate difficult waters, and can be an excellent opportunity for introducing and explaining the unfamiliar by shedding new light on a problem being discussed.


Metaphors can make abstract or elusive concepts more concrete. Research reveals that our brains are quicker to process metaphors based on our own sensory experience and most accessible memories. Sharing strong examples and unlocking responses that tap most broadly into the experiences of the target audience and can produce demonstrably better results. This can go a long way toward easing fears generated in any change-management scenario.


For instance, take the word rough. Using this word to describe a particular challenge can activate a portion of the brain when we touch something that’s physically rough. Our understanding can become more visceral, and our communication more empathetic.


That’s the case in the everyday world, and it’s the case to be made in the Deloitte Greenhouse. We rely on sensory and experiential cues to transmit our message most efficiently.How do we leverage the power of metaphor to help employers, managers, and staff better understand the key messages being communicated In our Greenhouse sessions, we look to use metaphors that help clients, and ourselves, to learn and adapt. In some cases, we literally start with carpentry tools as the appropriate introduction to the human capital challenges our clients face in the workplace.


Our “Take a Tool” approach was presented recently to one major Silicon Valley client during a change management workshop, using the science of metaphor and the sense of touch to optimal effect. Each participant was asked to select a tool of their choosing located on a table in the room and then represent their own personal contribution to the overall project, the construction of a cust0m-built home, to small groups.  


The larger pool of participants was then reassembled to share responses more broadly. Participants were asked to hold and display their particular tool and discuss its importance. We learned that the size and weight of an item affects the judgment of the holder on its monetary value and what it means in terms of decision-making.


During other workshops, we’ve spoken with participants about taking a specific journey together—what does that mean individually and in the context of the larger group, what role should each person play, what is the end game? The process of climbing a mountain, reaching for the peak, elicits different feelings and opinions from each member. It can also establish a free exchange of ideas about the level of accountability and responsibility each person holds, and should hold. It also suggests teamwork and that we are physically connected and need to get to the peak together.


Or we mix it up completely. In a meeting with certain federal employees, we asked them to wear the Silicon Valley uniform—e.g. jeans and hoodies—a look quite unfamiliar in the halls of public agencies. It changed the direction of the conversation, and brought us to some interesting paths the participants hadn’t explored.


And it’s not just the appearances that matter, it is also how it feels to wear the clothes. You can be transformed internally when you inhabit different clothing. You want to live up to the image you are projecting. Researchers at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management found that when people were asked to wear long white coats identified as lab coats, attention spans increased. When told they were painters’ smocks, there was no appreciable difference in attention span.


Our Greenhouse sessions are fascinating and fluid interactions, but there are certain constants that emerge from one to the next. Here are the main takeaways in addressing and creating key messages in a change management environment:


Know your audience. Will a particular audience understand the metaphor? If not, it will likely fall flat or fail to convey the correct message. A restaurant business might better connect to metaphors that highlight ingredients, while construction company employees might respond better to metaphors about architecture and planning in remodeling a building.


Embody the metaphor. Calling on any of the five senses in these settings—through clothing, touch, movement and other sensory interactions during workshops—can be a valuable exercise and helps reinforce the core message that needs to be delivered.


Mind your metaphors. Try not to mix the metaphor. Messages shouldn’t confuse; once the proper metaphor has been identified, think about the possible discrepancies, how it does or doesn’t fit the concept. You need to connect with the people you’re addressing, not only in the room that day but in the weeks and months ahead.


Watch your language. Choose your words carefully. Change can be volatile, and this is often not an enjoyable experience for those going through transition. The clarity of message and power of metaphor is important.

The Authors: 

Esi Dawson is manager, Greenhouse Experience Group, Deloitte LLP.

Kathryn Hautanen is senior manager, Greenhouse Experience Group, Deloitte LLP.