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THE POWER OF METAPHOR: Integrating Your Left and Right Brain

Work is work. And, play is play. Right? And never the twain shall meet.

Wrong. The business arena offers—if not, needs—a perfect opportunity for our creative outlet. And I don’t mean playing paddle tennis in the Google offices. Innovation and imagination stir the heart of true visionary companies. Think Apple, Amazon and Alibaba. (That’s just the beginning of the alphabet.) Sure, we readily apply our imagination to invention of the company’s products and services. Yet, how infrequently do we incorporate our brain’s right hemisphere talent into our daily problem solving at work? We typically leave that to the analytical left hemisphere. Very few of us intentionally access the innovative impulses of our right hemisphere for hard business. (Unless, of course, we operate in the advertising, artistic, architectural or entertainment domains). In our non-aesthetic professions is precisely where we need creative thinking the most, during our daily conundrums—a whole brain firing pistons on both sides to overcome the latest challenge that the market (or a Chairman of the Board) throws at us.

Let’s talk about a trigger to activate all our thought processes. Metaphor proposes that you imagine what business opportunity—or, obstacle—could present itself. Metaphor already exists everywhere around us in business contexts. We see it every day, especially in–but not limited to–the marketing arena: gas station icons, sports team mascots, corporate logos and letterhead, signage, breakfast cereal packaging, platoon nicknames, personality assessments, online forum avatars, product names, dating games, and models of cars. To name a few. These little images, logos, and slogans remind us, in a concise way, of all a brand represents. Or, at least, aspires to.

How does it work? By association. Complex language, benefits, and emotions surrounding a product, service or person get boiled down into a small representative pictorial. For example, take the word ‘bull’ and the adjectives that it conjures. Strong. Muscled. Dangerous. Tenacious. Male. Aggressive. Fighting. Pair that with your pick of a major US city, a bright color, or some Wall Street rhetoric and out pops a (waning) NBA sports team, an energy beverage, and a financial advisor, respectively. The Chicago Bulls, Red Bull, and Merrill Lynch (“bullish on America.”) Each, in its own moment of rising or faded glory, seeks to capitalize on the qualities of the original bovine by association. That’s metaphor—a right brain function.

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Of course, literature and language provide us an ample supply of the same: novels (in “…Shades of Grey”); nonfiction (“golden parachute”); songs and nursery rhymes (Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle”); proverbs and fables (Aesop’s and La Fontaine’s “sour grapes”); fairy tales (“glass slipper”); Bible parables (“prodigal son” and “good Samaritan”); movies and adaptations (“the force”); advertising (the Old Spice spokesman); etc. Consider it a shorthand symbol with which you identify, one image that sums up everything. Just try to find a lawyer joke about being shipwrecked, at sea, or other that doesn’t employ the work ‘shark’.

In social games (and academic testing), metaphor has promised a creative way to get to know one another and one another’s preferences via a polarized dichotomy. Sinatra or Elvis? Ginger or Mary Ann? Calvin or Hobbs? (The list goes on.) Let’s cross the line by bringing this into the workplace. At the office, do you see yourself more as Dilbert or Dogbert? Think for moment. Maybe longer. What figurative terms do you and your colleagues throw around the office, at symposiums, or in the field: bottom-feeder, low hanging fruit, next level, climbing the ladder, peak performance, supply chains, bringing on board, rally the troops, market crash, The Art of War or other catchphrases borrowed from somewhere and something else?

Metaphor Defined

The original Greek meaning of metaphor is “to transfer or carry over.”

Metaphor is not some new-fangled contraption designed to encapsulate a motivational seminar. It has been around for ages. In fact, for as long as man has been telling stories. Rarely does a CEO or political leader escape from an inspiring speech or a state-of-the-union address without employing a metaphor. Rev. Martin Luther Jr. had one. “I have a…”

Lee Iacocca, former Chairman of Chrysler once said: “The kind of people I look for to fill top management spots are the eager beavers, the mavericks. These are the guys who try to do more than they’re expected to do — they always reach.” Animal metaphors.

Harold Geneen, CEO of ITT, summarized the creation of the omnivorous conglomerate: “You read a book from beginning to end. You run a business the opposite way. You start with the end, and then you do everything you must to reach it.” Object metaphor.

The American Heritage Dictionary explains metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a term is transferred from the object it ordinarily designates, to an object it may designate only by implicit comparison or analogy…” Like, our bulls. Metaphor reveals itself as figurative language, allegory, visualization, poetry, and parable—something that represents something else. We see it in categories such as comics, animals, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, proverbs, Bible parables, movies, songs, advertising, etc. Literary metaphors may be the most common. Once I attended a seminar in Belgium where a renowned speaker started to talk about her upcoming project. She said something that struck me, as a writing consultant, which many will identify with: “I am pregnant with book.” Anyone who writes knows that point when you have so much ‘expression’ inside you that you’re going to burst if you don’t get it out on paper.

However, allegorical metaphors are not fit just for fancy, filibustering elocutions or political rhetoric alone. In fact, one obvious—seemingly unrelated—metaphor appears as part of the business name of a $14.5 billion retail company (whose product line, incidentally, has long strayed from its original theme) associated with a yellow fruit and political unrest in the subtropics: Banana Republic. (Which, by the way, has not produced expedition gear and safari clothing since 1983, when Gap bought and rebranded the company for mainstream luxury fashion.) Business is abundant in metaphor names: Kayak, Blackberry, Monster, Jaguar, etc.—each with, to varying degrees, its implied or hidden meanings. Lucrative metaphors.

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Metaphor for Business Drama

Intrinsically, metaphoric thinking is filled with dramatic conflict (English 101). It plays itself out not only in film and hardcover, but also around the water cooler and boardroom table. We fight against nature, others or even ourselves. Competitors vie for market share. Companies wrestle to survive an economic bust. Sales managers strive to beat their own records. Or, even more basically, people (whether on coffee break or in voting chairs) just don’t always get along. Our professional lives are infused with personal and work challenges. Drama. Past clients have come to JSK to work on business drama such as:

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  • Increasing product sales
  • Competing for a promotion
  • Increasing company’s market share
  • Advancing from project lead to executive management
  • Determining an international market niche
  • Generating the most income with the least effort
  • Navigating the corporate environment as a woman
  • Handling workload shift and added responsibilities with excitement
  • Changing careers
  • Handling burn-out
  • Setting work priorities
  • Finding motivation and discipline
  • Seeking purpose after retirement from chief officer position 

All conflictual. Emotional. Although work is work, with conflict comes our reactions to it and feelings about it. Emotion attaches itself to almost everything we do and experience. Our workplace is rife with the emotion, sentiment, and sensibilities we bring into it as human beings. Almost every CEO will admit that some of his or her best decisions are often “gut reactions” to the environment. Professor Antonio Damasio, a neurologist at the University of Iowa, states in his study Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain that “Making daily decisions based on emotions is not an exception; it’s the rule.”

Typical emotional reactions to a market challenge—according to psychologists Ekman & Friesen—fall into one of six basic categories of emotions: Happiness (joy, delight, enthusiasm); Sadness (regret, shame, sorrow); Anger (hatred, vengeance, spite); Fear (worry, dread, doubt); Surprise (excitement, shock, stun); and, Disgust (repulsion, offense, bitterness). 

As an executive coach, I always learn more about the challenges that management faces when they use such imagery, than if they told it to me straight (i.e., censored). I use cartoon characters in my workshops with them—asking clients to name a character, or an animal, with which they most identify–because these exemplify human behavior and situations at the extreme. The exercise also helps them to tap into their business intuition and emotional intelligence (i.e., awareness about themselves, about others and about their setting).

One unit head going through a job transition, whom I coached, had a little epiphany when introducing himself as a “beaten down dog.” He had given up the fight after having been given a package due to a recent merger and acquisition. Suddenly, he had an accurate description of his half-hearted search efforts for a new position, which he could not verbalize previously except as a general malaise. Next, he pinpointed fresh outlooks he needed in both his approach and a target company’s organizational culture. He found his ‘opposite’—an alter ego—in the image of a “spry fox” to help him plan his transition strategy.

Analyst Tihamér von Ghyczy writes about business metaphor in the Harvard Business Review article “The Fruitful Flaws of Strategy Metaphors” (Sept. 2003): “By eschewing the model’s promise of explanation served up ready for application to business, we gain the metaphor’s promise of novel thinking, which has always been the true wellspring of business innovation.” He explains that metaphor in the workplace invites in other minds to explore topics in an unbridled but systematic manner. “While it may be bad literary style to mix one’s metaphors, no such stricture exists in cognitive pursuits.” Discussion provoked by a metaphor, or story telling, is unconcerned with compatibility, veracity and validity; it simply and playfully seeks novelty: The spark of an idea that had not been accessible previously through spreadsheets and boardroom pontification. 

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The Benefits 

Whether animal, cartoon, military maneuver, story, TV character, or sports analogy, imagery communicates broad concepts packed into a tight, dense package. It allows our suit-and-tie side to play with our innovative, creative side. To meld our right-hemisphere creativity with our left-hemisphere analytical functions. I label this ‘the Power of Metaphor’. It performs three very useful functions during analysis and decision-making: 

  • To access guarded information.
  • To breach defensive walls nonchalantly.
  • To get in through the back door. 

First, by putting a troublesome business discussion into the format of a story, we can usually learn more information about an individual or a situation than would be freely divulged otherwise. The playfulness of metaphor brings out the best and the most candid in willing participants, for example, during workshop introductions or inner sanctum sessions. Sometimes the client offers up the metaphor with out me asking. Once, while preparing a strategic off-site for an Entertainment conglomerate’s management team, one leader described the dysfunction of his unit to me as “a car moving too fast for us to stop and change the four flat tires.” That says a lot about the management team’s mentality…and the gap between their perceived image and their reality.

Second, the technique of putting a polemic into a ‘fictional’ narrative gives one a sense of distancing the players from the issue so that they feel more comfortable talking about it, themselves, and their relationship to it more objectively. For instance, recall the effects of Nathan the Prophet’s story told to King David about Bathsheba, in which ‘interpreted’ her as “…a little lamb.” This technique works great when certain participants have put up their walls in a defensive stance or bias. (In fact, I’m surprised more marriage counselors don’t employ this coaching tool.) It functions as disguised auto-persuasion to evoke the right thing to do in a particularly touchy situation.

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And finally, third, whether you’re an executive coach or a company president, by using metaphors and figures of speech, you can broach topics that are just too-hot-to-handle from a direct, frontal approach. This works as well for topics in which the coached client or concerned colleague is clearly overwhelmed by a plethora of potential choices or incognizant of any available choices at all. Rather than heading down an obvious, and oft over-worn path of overstatement, the team can attack a problem in an indirect, inductive manner. You get to sneak in the back way, unsuspected, through the door does not have pat or ‘correct’ answers ready at hand. 

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The trick, however, to succeed with the Power of Metaphor is to so exhaust the list of traits of the associated image we most identify with, that we are left only with the opposite archetype to investigate from a truly fresh perspective. Here, our mind strives to access hidden solutions that are uncommon, yet somehow still familiar.

Individuals in past groups have visualized a metaphoric story about a forest that represents the growth of their business. As the story unfolds, they imagine how the flora-and-fauna and symbolize patterns and attributes, and the weather and vermin symbolize specific market crises, each presenting solutions to a problem found in their real life business lives. This provides a starting point to formulate a strategic plan.

Other times, I will ask people to draw then describe a picture of their ‘business beast’—an actual threat to one’s livelihood, often a competitor, but sometimes—unbeknownst to them—a personal habit. They make observations to elicit insights on common ground between them and their beast, and then explore for beneficial strategies that the monster may unwittingly provide to its author. The owner of one consulting firm visualized her dominant competitor as an octopus with tentacles reaching in every direction to strangle market stragglers like herself. Her revelation came from seeing the octopus’ ink as a smoke screen, giving her company better leverage to discern and call the competitor’s bluffs. She figured out the larger company couldn’t really be in all places at once, like she had thought. The new perspective shifted her from a sense of hopeless futility to bright opportunity. From emotion to solution. For her action plan, she turned her attention to lesser sub-markets where the tentacles did not reach and clients could best be served by a smaller enterprise. Her monster gave her a concrete answer.

I encourage companies and clients to extrapolate any issue into a metaphor story. One colleague, a sales consultant needing to increase his own sales, amazed himself by picking the bedtime story of Little Red Riding Hood to convey his concern. (I shuddered.) He felt like a lost, little girl trying to make his way through dangerous woods to increase sales of his nonfiction business book. The consultant decided to look at his story from the perspective of Grandma and the Big Bad Wolf: How did they see things differently than he and Red? By the end of the session, he realized that a lot of his habits and efforts were actually ‘cannibalizing’ his other endeavors because of a lack of distinction in his roles, functions, and time management. Metaphor brought him to the point where he could see what (in him) was blocking progress, which provided him a solid starting point to take his next strategic step.

We need to set as our objective the discovery of new ways of perceiving a situation and initiating new strategies. We need to turn to that which operates outside of our own habitual field of play, and toward the exact opposite. The villain. The unknown. The anti-hero will offer a fresh perspective on our dilemma. We could not imagine otherwise by playing it safe with our most relatable metaphor (cartoon, character, hero, or other) alone. Rather, we ask, “How does the opposite operate?” How do they go about achieving their objective? Or, go about thwarting me? 

Most clients have an adverse reaction to associate themselves with the antagonist in a story, or a less-than-stellar animal image. (Ego.) One very upbeat, alpha-female leader at first described herself as a “prowling tiger” during introductions. (When asked, most corporate leaders flatter themselves with positive archetype images.) When forced to choose her opposite archetype, however, she chose the slower, stealthy “…rat.” Her own nervous energy and sense of duty to always be “on” and moving had terribly frayed the tigress’ nerves; the rat taught her that she needed moments to recuperate and to be quiet, still, alone “in the dark,” in order to plan her next attack against the competition.

I remind my clients that we are not placing an ethical value on the anti-archetype characters. Metaphor coaching certainly does not encourage a client to put a poisonous spell on a gifted apple in order to get ahead in the marketplace. Nor do we suggest that a vicious viper fully embodies positive management attributes of an organization. But I do ask them to set aside their objections in order to see what they can learn from an opposite perspective.

One female manager who did not want to be “a snake” did discover that she could still move forward in the market by pursuing overlooked opportunities to move back-and-forth and from side-to-side. (Lateral vs. typical vertical expansion. …Hmm, her competitors were not leveraging those secondary markets yet.) Other actual clients came up with similar examples. A young man with a Sleeping Beauty attitude toward his stalled career then reluctantly switched his perspective to that of the Wicked Witch. He discovered he had a natural propensity toward passivity (to figuratively fall asleep at the wheel of his profession out of shear boredom); but, that the Witch could teach him a thing or two about constant, engaged, aggressive action to move things forward according to her plan.

After metaphor play, the majority of clients note a shift in their emotional frame of mind from negative to positive, freeing them up to make clearer, better decisions. Sometimes that shift ranges from negative to less negative (seeing circumstance as more ‘tolerable’), or from positive to more positive (seeing a good position as ‘even better’). Emotion almost always shifts. That shift allows the leader to assume control again. 

The metaphor formula functions to build skills in identification, perspective, and practical application. All exercises depend on identifying an issue; imagining a perspective least like the individual agent’s own; and, executing an actionable initiative. At JSK Coaching Associates, our clients who employ metaphor in professional development find results 99.9% of the time. That is, when they are willing to play with, investigate, and employ it. Of course, pragmatically, I have them translate the insight into a measurable action on a time deadline to which I hold them accountable.

The Power of Metaphor succeeds because every individual makes discoveries that they had not noticed before. These relate to unknown attitudes that had encumbered them; alternate strategies they overlooked; advice they had been given, but not followed; facts they had forgotten and not exploited; reminders of where they had fallen behind or broken pledges; insight into just how savvy competitors are; warnings of potential threats, and tactics on how to circumvent them; minor relational or emotional constraints, which overshadowed the project at hand; alignment of company culture and personal engagement (or, not); and, practical ways to right an ignorance or a wrong.

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Metaphor has helped business professionals to make better decisions in two ways. First, they can label a frustrating emotion rather than indulge it. Second, they can stimulate their creative, intuitive side to activate their logical, strategic side. Emotions turn into solutions.

Work needs to include play, when the game is to access more figurative brainpower for solving problems, overcoming obstacles or making tough decisions. The ability to imagine a positive outcome gives one the possibility to achieve it. While having fun along the way, at work or at play.

www.JSKcoaching.com

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