John Budd published an interesting piece on his Blog “Wither Work?” titled “Business Is Not a War, a Jungle, a Machine, or a Game: Rejecting Narratives that are Unhealthy for Work and Workers“.
“In fact, there are many war metaphors used in business: in addition to the “war for talent,” we can see references to competitors as the enemy, strategies as plans of attack, cash as a war chest, competition as a battle (“capture market share”), sometimes even employees as troops (“rally the troops”). All of these portray business as focused on beating the competition rather than producing an excellent product or service and make it legitimate to do this by any means necessary. War metaphors make it seem necessary for business to adopt hierarchical, authoritarian, military-like chains of command. All of these should be rejected. Business should be viewed as focused on excellent products and services, not winning. Business requires cooperation, shared interests, and agreed-upon rules of conduct, not war.”
John Budd criticises not only the use of war metaphors, but also of jungle, maschine or game metaphors. Metaphors are often used in situations with conflicting interests. For instance, an article by Heiko Hoßfeld (2013) shows how companies use metaphors in “downsizing” practices. “Downsizing measures like theirs are often met with resistance if they conflict with the interests, values or worldviews of stakeholders.” He analyses in an empirical case study, how two German banks, undertaking massive staff and cost reductions, “use their own mass communication media to create, with the aid of metaphors, a legitimizing image of their practices.” John Budd 2011) has published an interesting book about the different ways we speak about, conceptualize and view work. It makes, for instance, a difference whether we view work as a commodity or a social relationship, these different views have a material basis, but they are also powerful social constructions influencing how we perceive and experience our work and how we communicate our experiences.
On the one hand: Using language means using metaphors, we can’t avoid metaphors (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). This means, on the other hand, the more we should reflect and criticise their use, in particular in the field of employment relations, a politically “contested terrain” (Edwards, 1979) or “contested exchange” (Bowles & Gintis, 1990).
A final remark: It would be interesting to analyse not only the use of metaphors – how we speak about work or the employment relationship -, but also the use which pictures (images), mainly photographies regarding these subjects. I think, how we perceive objects, is more and more influenced by pictures we see on TV, especially on the internet. The more abstract such objects are, the stronger is the influence. How we conceptualize an object as “Personnel” could be influenced by the pictures we see on the internet when we search for “Personnel” or related terms. This is a new question, which goes beyond this blog post, but I want to illustrate this idea with a (selective) screenshot of the pictures resulting from a Google picture search for “Personnel”. What do we see? How do these pictures influence our cognitive conceptualization of “Personnel”, when we see them very often? … I will come back to this topic.
- Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (1990). Contested Exchange: New Microfoundations for the Political Economy of Capitalism. Politics and Society, 18(2), 165–222.
- Budd, J. W. (2011). The thought of work. Ithaca, N.Y: ILR Press.
- Edwards, R. C. (1979). Contested Terrain: The Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books.
- Hoßfeld, H. (2013). Corporate Dieting. Persuasive Use of Metaphors in Downsizing. Management Revue, 24(1), 53–70.
- Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago et al.: University of Chicago Press.
If I may also mention my work on metaphors in German SMEs:
Egeling, Alexander (2011): „Das System Unternehmen – empirische Erkenntnisse zur Verbesserung der wirtschaftswissenschaftlichen Aneignung der Systemtheorie Niklas Luhmanns”, in: SEM|RADAR – Zeitschrift für Systemdenken und Entscheidungsfindung im Management, 1/2011, p.3-30.