Metaphors in Management – Blend of Theory and Practice

by Michał Chmielecki (Author) Łukasz Sułkowski (Author)
©2017 Monographs 206 Pages


This book will help managers understand organizations in non-quantitative manner. The modern-day managers are challenged with dealing with these constantly increasing complexities in the pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness. They must understand how constant changes influence their tasks so they can contribute to establishing a fast-reacting organization. The authors analyze how metaphors can serve as methods or tools that provide insight into how organizations function, and how best to deal with making them successful in a state of permanent change.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Part I: Theoretical aspects of metaphors in management
  • Introduction
  • 1. The nature of metaphors
  • 2. Cognitive typology of metaphors
  • 3. Cognitive linguistics and conceptual metaphor
  • 4. The social constructivism perspective
  • 5. Is metaphor universal?
  • 6. A critique of Conceptual Metaphor Theory
  • 7. Metaphor in management and organization theory
  • 8. Metaphors and communication in organizational settings
  • Part II: Practical applications of metaphors in management
  • 1. Metaphors in economic discourse
  • 2. Metaphors for organizations
  • 3. Metaphors in organizational culture
  • 4. Metaphors in strategic management
  • 5. Metaphors in organizational conflict
  • 6. Metaphors in knowledge sharing
  • 7. Metaphor in negotiation
  • 8. Metaphor in management consulting
  • 9. Metaphors for creativity and problem solving
  • 10. Metaphor in organizational change and innovation
  • 11. Metaphor in executive coaching
  • 12. Metaphor in entrepreneurship
  • 13. Summary
  • Bibliography

← 6 | 7 →

Part I:  Theoretical aspects of metaphors in management


“All theories of organization and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us to see, understand, and imagine situations in partial ways. Metaphors create insight. But they also distort. They have strengths. But they also have limitations. In creating ways of seeing, they create ways of not seeing. Hence there can be no single theory or metaphor that gives an all-purpose point of view. There can be no ‘correct theory’ for structuring everything we do.”1

It has always been the goal of managing bodies to understand their employees’ intentions, and try to predict their behavior in an organizational context2. However, today’s management faces a great challenge. Our mental patterns are no longer sufficient for navigating the scenarios of modern organizational complexity3. The modern-day manager is challenged with dealing with these constantly increasing complexities in the pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness. They must understand how constant changes influence their tasks so they can contribute to establishing a fast-reacting organization. “Ideal organizations”, as described by Weick and Quinn4 as well as Buchanan et al.5, are capable of ongoing adaptation, being both proactive and reactive at the same time according to circumstances and situation. Organizational metaphors can serve as methods or tools that provide insight into how organizations function, and how best to deal with ← 7 | 8 → making them successful in a state of permanent change. Bolman and Deal6, stress that companies are ambiguous, contradictory and uncertain, and that metaphors can help administrators to decrease or remove the misunderstandings caused by managing such a complex phenomenon. Morgan7 states that metaphors assist companies in analyzing organizations from a “mosaic of different lenses or images”.

Bennis and Nanus8 investigated transformational leaders, i.e. those who had the ability to transform people’s expectations and organizational systems, and found that among the tools the transformational leader uses to create the vision – and so create the meaning of the organization – is metaphor9. By studying metaphors, the modern-day manager will be better prepared to understand organizations and how best to deal with the circumstances they are challenged by, as they strive for results.

1.  The nature of metaphors

Metaphors saturate our language10 and many metaphors already exist in the world of business and organizations. Metaphor is not just a mere ornament; it is a common, frequent and pervasive phenomenon. Different scholars produced different research findings on metaphor frequency. ← 8 | 9 →

Table 1. Findings on the frequency of use of metaphor, by different authors.

Author(s) Frequency in metaphor
Steen et al.1113.6% of all lexical units in the corpus can be classified as being related to metaphor.
Gibbs125.7 metaphors per minute of speech.
Whalen et al.133.69 nonliteral statements in past-oriented e-mails (average of 284,90 words) and 2.11 in future-oriented e-mails (average of 221,02 words).
Andriessen14At least 95% of all statements about either knowledge or intellectual capital are based on metaphor.

Source: J. Wittink, RELIABLE METAPHOR ANALYSIS IN ORGANIZATIONAL RESEARCH, Towards a dual, dynamic approach, VU University Amsterdam, http://dspace.ubvu.vu.nl/.

They are often used to understand evasive concepts that we would like to communicate with others. Morgan wrote that metaphor is “…a primal, generative process that is fundamental to the creation of human understanding and meaning in all aspects of life”15. According to Black, metaphors help us sort reality from illusion16.

We instinctively graft abstract and complex concepts such as ‘time’, ‘life’ and ‘organization’ onto more concrete concepts that are easier to visualize. Even theories get visualized, often as structures (we may talk about ‘supporting’ evidence or the ‘foundations’ of a theory). “Metaphors are omnipresent in science. Astrophysicists describe the distribution of mass in the universe as being foam-like, ← 9 | 10 → and chemists still ascribe orbitals to atoms as if electrons were planets spinning around a nuclear sun”17.

Phrases such as ‘life is a game’ or ‘business is war’ clearly represent expressions by means of which the speaker aims to draw the recipient’s attention to the fact that in life or business, you can either win or lose.

Metaphors have remained an important subject of interest through the centuries. Theory, analysis, research and study have been dedicated to them, from Aristotle until now. Conflicting with common thought, our conceptualization and thinking are pervaded by metaphors, rather than their simply serving as rhetorical and poetic devices. To be more precise, in the field of linguistics and communication it is believed that our cognitive processes and thoughts are highly metaphorical – that human thought is constructed and constituted of metaphors18. It is certain that language is barely metaphor-free, meaning that people reason in metaphors and develop familiarity with new domains as a result of metaphorical thinking19. This is because analogical thinking leads to fresh understanding of either familiar or new concepts20.

Metaphors are basically implied comparisons that bring together two concepts. “Metaphor occurs when a unit of discourse is used to refer unconventionally to an object, process or concept, or colligates in an unconventional way. And when this unconventional act of reference or colligation is understood on the basis of similarity, matching or analogy involving the conventional referent or colligates of the unit and the actual unconventional referent or colligates”21. Dickins, for instance, defines metaphors as “A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used in a non-basic sense, this non-basic sense suggesting a likeness or analogy […] with another more basic sense of the ← 10 | 11 → same word or phrase”22. According to Deignan “A metaphor is a word or expression that is used to talk about an entity or quality other than that referred to by its core, or most basic meaning. This non-core use expresses a perceived relationship with the core meaning of the word, and in many cases between two semantic fields”23.

We must also stress that metaphors evolve. For instance, until very recently the information superhighway was a metaphor for the internet. But the word ‘cyberspace’ has now taken over24. The question is whether they are the same. Alternatively, will a new word replace the term ‘cyberspace’ as wearable computers cross over from the realm of the exotic to that of mass-produced commodity?

Among various types of metaphors emerging from professional literature, several that are used more frequently in management can be identified. These are presented in table 1.

Table 2. Metaphor types.

Type of metaphorDescription
cognitive metaphor1. A cognitive metaphor associates the object with an experience outside of the object for cognitive purposes, and is the fundamental type of metaphor.
core metaphor2. A core metaphor, which constitutes a fundamental method of interpretation, is used in management with reference to understanding of the organizational culture as being the organization itself.
extended metaphor3. An extended metaphor allows for development of one interpretational plot. If it is assumed that the organization is a theatre, then their participants may be perceived as actors, strategic options as different scripts, and organizational cultures as acting styles, etc. ← 11 | 12 →
mixed metaphor4. A mixed metaphor is one that leaps from one comparison to another, causing surprise or a paradoxical feeling. In an organizational discourse, such roles are assigned to the postmodern use of a variety of conflicting metaphors (e.g. ‘an organization is a kaleidoscope which transformed into a happening once the machine collapsed’).
absolute metaphor5. An absolute metaphor is a linguistically non-reducible concept25. A prerequisite for use of these kinds of metaphors is the ambiguity and the problem with reductionism of the basic notions of our sciences, such as organization, management, strategy, structure, culture, etc.
Didactic metaphors6. Didactic and therapeutic metaphors also play other roles than just the cognitive. In management, metaphoric thinking is used e.g. to educate managers and to diagnose organizational cultures.
dead metaphor7. A dead metaphor is one in which the sense of a transferred image is absent; as in ‘to take the reins’ or ‘hold sway’, wherein the physical act of grasping and holding is referred to, but has historically vanished. However, the linguistic and spatial association remains in the human mind and directs the way of reasoning.
Metonymy8. Metonymy is a figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept26. One example is the phrase ‘organization axes employees’, as indeed it is not the organization that axes but the managers employed by the organization.
An implied metaphor9. An implied metaphor is indirect and refers to a larger lot, e.g. ‘people are the cogs in the organizational machine’.
A latent metaphor10. A latent metaphor signifies that certain words may be omitted due to communicational economy, e.g. the sentence ‘he was sacked’ means that someone was made redundant. ← 12 | 13 →
Synecdoche11. Synecdoche is a type of metonymy, in which a part of something is used to refer to the whole thing or vice versa. Use of a synecdoche in management discourse can be illustrated by the following sentences: ‘The manager has not decided yet. This demiurge needs time.’
An active metaphor12. An active metaphor is one that is in the process of introduction, therefore, it should be clearly explained, e.g. ‘the culture of this organization is like bipolar disorder; it pushes employees towards hyperactivity, then they fall into depression and catatonic stupor’.
submerged metaphor13. A submerged metaphor is one that hides the first part, which is interpreted through the second part, e.g. ‘a manager goes with the flow thanks to grounded employees’.
A conceptual metaphor14. A conceptual metaphor offers a broad and universal interpretational framework that often is also an extended metaphor, e.g. ‘life consists in organization’.
pataphor15. A pataphor is an extreme, pointless, exaggerated form of metaphor designed to draw somebody’s attention. The sentence ‘this organization is a giant organizm, where the managers are the head, the employees are the hands and the management the inner organs’ includes a pataphor.
simple metaphor16. A simple metaphor is an accepted and identified, short and relatively unequivocal comparison in use, e.g. ‘to fire’.
complex metaphor17. A complex metaphor uses more than one comparison. For instance, the sentence ‘the roots of organization grow in the bedrock of an X’, is a double metaphor because of the words ‘roots’ and ‘bedrock’.

Source: Sułkowski Ł., Types of metaphors of organization, “Journal of Intercultural Management”, Vol. 3, No. 2, October 2011, pp. 221–227.

2.  Cognitive typology of metaphors

Five epistemological positions that define the significance of metaphoric thinking can be presented27. ← 13 | 14 →

Table 3. Five epistemological positions that define the significance of metaphoric thinking

Epistemological positionDefinition of metaphoric thinking
NeopositivismMetaphors do not play a significant cognitive role as they do not reflect the organizational reality, but they may play a creative role – they spur the imagination and encourage looking for original solutions. A machine or organization metaphor can be interpreted in neopositivist categories.
RationalismMetaphors of organization are contained within a presumption of analogy, which can, assuming the position of methodological pluralism, be included in scientific methods. In this meaning there are few fitting metaphors of organization and management, as they must reflect the key properties and relations of the object described28. Rational interpretation is often used in reference to a ‘learning’ organization.
• CognitivismMetaphors are basic structures for interpreting organizational reality in language, and thus, in the way of thinking. Creating a metaphor is a spontaneous, linguistic, and cultural process that organizes a field for a discourse around ascertain basic metaphor. An example of such quasi-metaphors is the formation of sentences around a source metaphor, e.g. ‘an organization is a machine’ or ‘an organization is a container’29.
• PragmatismA pragmatic approach describes metaphor as a tool for action. Transfer of ideas from an organization onto different objects can serve as a diagnosis or initiation of actions. This approach seems to be assumed by G. Morgan in his ‘Images of Organization’. A metaphoric analysis is designed to improve an organization. ← 14 | 15 →
• PostmodernismMetaphors of organization are only ‘linguistic games’; they are incommensurate and open to any use. One can imagine a metaphor comparing the organization to any chosen object: an organism, a text, time, a black hole, a pair of shoes or a dog. Metaphoric relations do not respect cause-and-effect relations and do not have to offer any cognitive content. One does not have to know the object to which he or she compares, the only thing needed is the idea of it. The value of metaphor does not depend on the metaphor itself but on the interpreter. An example of a metaphor using the postmodern approach is a ‘vibrating’ organization.
• CriticismMetaphors have also been proposed by the authors of the CMS paradigm. Their purpose is mainly to criticize the predominant movement in the theory and practice of management. Among the metaphors there, are: management as a disturbed communication, mystification, cultural drug, and colonization of power.30

Source: Sułkowski Ł., Types of metaphors of organization, “Journal of Intercultural Management”, Vol. 3, No. 2, October 2011, pp. 221–227.

3.  Cognitive linguistics and conceptual metaphor

One group of linguists that trained as part of the generative grammar practice in the 1970s began to see shortcomings with that approach. Ronald Langacker and George Lakoff are two of the most prominent linguists to have turned away from generative grammar. Langacker and Lakoff reacted by setting out to create a new theory of language, which over time would come to be known as Cognitive Linguistics. At the moment, Cognitive Linguistics is considered a broader movement, that includes various methodologies and approaches.

Studies in linguistics have shown that when complex, intricate ideas are talked about, philosophized about and researched, then metaphors abound.31

There are two potentially opposing approaches to metaphor: one in which the metaphors plays an ornamental or decorative function, and one in which it is perceived as occupying a central place in thought and language. The second of ← 15 | 16 → these views is referred to as the ‘contemporary theory of metaphor’32. The ‘decorative’ approach describes metaphor as a poetic or rhetorical device peripheral to language and thought, while contemporary theory holds it as occupying a central role in thought, and thus in the development of language. Lakoff claims that our understanding and knowledge of many topics is filtered through metaphor.

The assumption that human cognition – i.e. the production, communication and processing of meaning – depends on the mappings between the mental spaces is one of the basic tenets of cognitive linguistics. Human cognition is autonomous from language. The cross-domain linguistic expression mappings are simply deeper cognitive structures manifested on the surface that have important analogue or spatial components33.

Conventional theories have usually painted metaphors as “rhetorical spices”, reduced to the equivalent of literal paraphrases. Understood like this, they become optional linguistic devices. However, cognitive linguistics treat metaphor as just a matter of thought and not as a language which would then make conceptual metaphors pervasive and inescapable34.

Language is “essentially and inherently symbolic in nature”35. This means that conceptualization concerns all linguistic expression. Meaning is thought to be something that will reside in someone’s mind, and language is the means to relate that meaning in the form of sound or written words. Research into conceptual metaphors conducted by cognitive linguists has revealed many innovative and astonishing facts about how we make use of metaphors within the human mind. “Cognitive linguists concluded that the same mechanisms used to create metaphors existed thousands of years ago. People have been creating relationships between a word or words and non-literal meaning to convey a culture’s conceptualized meaning”36. Findings show that metaphors are not just devices that are used by poets or rhetoricians to make their arguments and verses spicier, but are actually fundamental structures that our mind will use to make sense of complicated concepts in our lives. ← 16 | 17 →


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (December)
Modern-day managers Efficiency Effectiveness Fast-reacting organization Strategic management Organizational change and innovation
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 206 pp., 2 b/w ill., 15 b/w tables

Biographical notes

Michał Chmielecki (Author) Łukasz Sułkowski (Author)

Michał Chmielecki is Assistant Professor at Clark University (USA) and the University of Social Sciences in Lodz (Poland). Łukasz Sułkowski is Professor of Economics and Humanities. He is Chair of HEI Management Department at the Faculty of Management and Social Communication of the Jagiellonian University (Poland), at Clark University (USA) and the Chair of the Management Department at the University of Social Sciences in Lodz (Poland). He is Vice-President of the Polish Accreditation Committee.


Title: Metaphors in Management – Blend of Theory and Practice
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