Metaphor as indicator

Published by Tony Quinlan on

Catching up on some podcasts, I’m listening to SciPod – the New Scientist podcast from 20060908 last year.  There’s a piece on the Macbeth effect – research around how physical cleanliness is related to morality.  It’s from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.  The study was published in the September edition of Science.

The research correlates "doing bad" with "wanting to wash".  I’m dubious about the way the research was carried out, which is a shame as I’m a big fan of how metaphors can be used to raise psychological issues.  I wish this research confirmed that rather more effectively than filling in the gap in "s**p".

Having said that, the basic principle of prompting metaphors is key to the emotional audits that we run.  At some point, we’re going to be writing up a guide to running emotional audits for those on our various coaching programmes.

In the meantime, I’ll repeat the story of one of our very first engagements using emotional audits.  We were working with the top team of a division, although the real engagement work was aimed at the frontline staff.  Indeed, the initial response to working with the top team had been "No need, they’re all on board – it’s the rest we need to work on."  We had the team creating metaphors for their organisation.  The team leader had a clear one – "we’re gardeners cutting out the dead wood for new growth to come through."  Nice, clear and positive.

His finance director then stood up.  [The language was rather strong, but I’ll edit so that it can get through filters for those who get this blog via email…]

"We’re ants and we live in an anthill.  And our anthill has just been hit by a meteor.  And we’re running around like ants do, about to rebuild our anthill.  But I can see another meteor coming in over the horizon."

Cue general realisation throughout the team about why working had been rather difficult – and for all the appropriately positive talk, nothing had really moved.

I asked the finance director afterwards why he’d never talked about this, if this was truly how he felt.  "Never really thought about it before.  But it’s … spot on."