In animated films, the fish worry, the lions flirt, and the robots sigh. Animators give non-human characters human attributes so that we identify with them. We do the same thing when we talk about the places where we work: we animate them. We imbue our companies with human traits. And by making them more human, we make them more understandable.
“To really understand our company,” said a senior director, “the first thing you need to know is that we are bipolar.”
I sat next to her at a group dinner as part of an executive education program. Earlier in the day, I had been the teacher. Now I was going to be the student.
“One minute we’re global and everything must be consistent – what we say, what we sell, how we sell it – everything,” she continued. “And then, like that, we flip.” She flipped her empty wine glass over to emphasize the point. “All of a sudden, we’re local. We must customize every single thing we do to every local region. But which is it going to be? We need to finally make up our minds. And that’s not the only thing we can’t decide.”
I munched on some greens and nodded my head as my unsolicited tutor went on to list the many ways in which her company swung from one extreme to the other.
“But,” said the previously silent man sitting on my right, “maybe we’re just breathing.”
My dinner-time teacher and I turned to face him. “Maybe it’s just in the natural course of things for a large, complex organization to have the steady rhythm of change you describe. You would never go to a man and say: exhale or inhale, which is it going to be?”
He explained the very same phenomenon using a very different image. If your company is bipolar, it has a disorder. If your company is breathing, it’s alive. One metaphor signifies sickness, while the other signifies health.
As you humanize your company, you do more than describe. You create. You can use different language to give different meaning to the same context. One of your most powerful opportunities to lead is to frame the way people see the world.
Anthropomorphize your company. Turn that complex, dynamic organization into a vivid, relatable character, and you’ll gain a lasting place in the mind of your audience’s memory and imagination. Metaphor is the language of leadership.
But be thoughtful about the impact of your powerful words. Do you want your people to think of themselves as part of a place with a disorder or as part of a healthy, living, breathing company?
Metaphors are durable and rugged – they are the power tools of language. They will outlast you, so choose them wisely.
This article first appeared on Psychology Today.