Changing the Metaphors in Business

by Alan Louis, PhD in Commerce.

A metaphor is defined by the Dictionary as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison” – as in “a sea of troubles.”

The marketplace tends to pay far more attention to its jargon than to metaphors, and it’s been my experience that it places little emphasis on words unless litigation is imminent. The Bible however cautions us regarding the incredible power of words. Proverbs 18:21 says that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” Ephesians 4:29 further admonishes that “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”

James Autry put it best: “Becoming a manager has much to do with learning the metaphors; becoming a good manager has much to do with using the metaphors; and becoming a leader has much to do with changing the metaphors.”

Choosing Words Carefully

How can we improve our business dealings by changing the metaphors? By that I don’t mean to imply that it’s enough to merely change the metaphors, because it’s also necessary to choose our words more carefully and with sensitivity.

When a company makes this statement: “Relationships are our biggest asset,” the company is either lying or using a metaphor to change the perceptions of its employees and its customers. I don’t believe companies would purposely lie when making such a statement, but the outcome hinges on whether or not the company’s leaders understand both the value of good relationships and the impact of their spoken words.

By making the statement that “relationships are our biggest asset,” that company’s directors understands that relationships are inherently difficult to manage but also realises that things and people become what we call them, and that truly death and life are in the power of the tongue. In the marketplace, words can work magic and change perceptions, improving morale and increasing sales. On the other hand, words can wreak havoc if not seasoned with grace.

Looking at Examples

Let’s consider the negative and positive effects of words and metaphors:

Statement A:   “I don’t think your work is particularly good. Do it over.” This statement implies that the person is inept, incapable of doing the job.

Statement A rephrased: “I don’t think your work is complete, you can do better.” This statement implies that the person is quite capable of doing better work. Such wording inspires the employee with hope and encouragement.

Statement B: “That company is going to collapse.” Too many people make this kind of irresponsible and reckless statement to the detriment of the company, only adding coals to the potential fire of destruction.

Statement B rephrased: “That company is going through a very difficult time but it has the human talent to survive.” Even if the truth is negative it can still be said in a positive way, to offset the negative and encourage hope.

Statement C: “Travel agencies are a dying industry.” This implies that travel agencies are worthless and no longer useful.

Statement C rephrased: “I like using travel agencies although they need to better address the needs of e-commerce.” If you blindly book your next holiday via the web instead of using a proficient travel agent, then you will learn first-hand why experienced travel agents are well worth their fees.

Statement D: “The boss is a lunatic who always demands his own way.” This implies that the boss is someone who cannot be trusted and might even be emotionally unbalanced.

Statement D rephrased: “I have a difficult boss, but he always makes sure that I get paid on time.” This implies that although the boss is not perfect he is fair.

A True Parallel

Taking care to use the most appropriate and upbeat words shows that you are aware that words have power and that you do not wish to pre-judge a situation to another’s ruin. If you’re still in doubt, let me tell you a true story I once heard:

A young man was sitting down on the only bench at a bus stop. An elderly woman arrived at the bus stop and grew irate when the young man did not immediately offer her his seat. The woman suddenly took her walking stick and poked the man with it, to which he replied, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, Ma’am. I did not mean to be inconsiderate. You’ll have to excuse me, because I’ve been sitting here trying to absorb the news that my best friend just died in a car accident.”

We must never react, assuming the worst or judging hidden motives that we do not know or understand. Rather, we must realise there may be extenuating circumstances which have nothing to do with us, for which we can choose to make allowances. Until we walk a mile in another’s shoes, we never know what the individual is going through.

Doing the Right Thing

In the 1990’s the U.S. Library of Congress named Dr. Victor Frankl’s ground-breaking work, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, as one of the ten most influential books of the twentieth century. An Austrian psychiatrist and Jewish Holocaust survivor, Dr. Frankl was a heroic figure, not only for his profound writing ability and insight into the human condition, but also for his great personal integrity. More than once during times of crisis, he put himself in mortal danger, risking his own life to protect or care for others. He made this profound statement:

“Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfil or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is … [Such a person] knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.”

We will enrich ourselves and the marketplace by changing our metaphors and words, thereby doing the right thing – doing good as much as you can, as often as you can, to as many people as you can. Those whose goals focus on merely attaining ‘happiness’ generally seek it for themselves alone.

Doing the right thing is not simply about thinking the right thoughts; it requires actions and words that focus on the wellbeing of society. In fact, several studies have shown that life is far more rewarding if it’s focused on others.

AlanlouisPicAbout the Author: Dr Alan Louis is a third generation entrepreneur in a family with a 100-year business history. He devoted his life to Christianity since the age of 7. He was awarded a PhD in Commerce, is an Ironman Triathlete Gold medallist and was inducted in the IBC Hall of Fame for entrepreneurship. Internationally he has served on more than 100 private corporate boards, and has experienced the ups and downs of commerce for 3 decades.

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