Marriage, Chess and the Zoo: How Metaphors Reveal our Thinking

Marriage, Chess and the Zoo: How Metaphors Reveal our Thinking 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

The metaphors we use when we describe things can tell us a lot about what we really think and feel.  I was reflecting on this the other day as I was preparing for a presentation.  Most all of my work centers around the workplace and the humans that interact within it.  And I use a lot of metaphors.

So, when I think about it, here’s the metaphors I either have or do most commonly use to describe elements of work and the workplace.

  1. Dating and marriage.  It’s not uncommon to hear me describe the relationship between and employee and employer using an example from our romantic lives.  The pursuit of one another, the ups and downs of the relationship.  Insight: I see work as relational–it happens between and through people.  
  2. The Zoo.  Several times in my career, I described the office in which I was positioned as being like a cage at the zoo.  I sat there, doing what I do, as people walked by looking in and observing me as if I was a form of wildlife.  Insight: I am not a fan of being boxed into an office or cubicle.  I am apparently in favor of “free-range” employees.  
  3. Chess.  As a student of influence and power, it has always helped me to think of the workplace as a game of chess where there are players of differing power positioning in an attempt to either survive or conquer.  Insight: When you view office politics like a game and understand it for what it is, life inside the machine can be a lot more fun and you can be far more successful.  
  4. Nation-state.  When talking about culture, I will often use the US versus the states as an example.  There is clearly and overarching culture of what it means to be an American.  But, there are unique sub-cultures that exist at the state level (Nebraska has a different culture than Vermont, but we are share common values that make us Americans).  Insight: I think that culture exists on multiple levels and it’s important that it be defined and understood on multiple levels.  There should be a uniting company culture that provides the fabric for the company to create upon.  But departments, divisions, locations and the like should be able to expand upon that culture to make it work for them.  
As you read this and think about these metaphors and related insights, they tell you as much about my work as they tell you about how I view work and the perspective I bring to things.  
So, what metaphors do you use to describe or make sense of work?  What insights do they reveal about your thinking and feelings regarding work (or your work)?  
  • JamesHolt7

    Jason, love the marriage metaphors, I think they're probably the most common in the HR and recruiting space because of what you said – relationships.

    As a sales manager in the RPO space, I tend to use baseball metaphors a lot as well. I see a lot of parallels with my sales people as the batter, taking swings at responding to sales obstacles or objections as to why someone won't look at RPO.

    With practice, there's a lot less swing and a miss and a whole lot more going yard!

  • LarryRaymond

    Hi Jason,
    I use a village as a way to view stakeholders in an issue. They're the buildings and roads show their relationships (Straight=good, rocky=troubled, etc)

    Also use a river for showing flow of time. If it represents a project, there are tributaries, waterfalls (unanticipated consequences) and lots of obstacles. (James, I once worked with a sales mgr who had his team build maps of rivers, one that showed their selling process, the other showing their client's buying process– and they gained some pretty interesting insights)

    Using metaphors with groups encourages a collaborative approach that has lots of benefits to communication and creativity. You can take a look at

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