Metaphors We Manage By

How managers can use metaphors to help employees thrive in a complex world

5-minute read

In the past year, we heard the pandemic described as a war and a firefight. We focused on flattening the curve. We talked about first, second, third, and fourth waves of the virus. For some regions, we’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel; for others, the spread is accelerating. In companies, employees are feeling burnt out, while leaders encourage teams onward through the marathon.

Are we literally swimming through crushing waves or running through a tunnel with our hair on fire? No, of course not. These are metaphors people used to make sense of the chaos over the last year. This habit isn’t unique to pandemic times. Metaphors are a crucial way we organize our thinking, understand our reality, and communicate with each other. By one estimate, people use 6 metaphors a minute to piece together the puzzle of their lives.

The best leaders use metaphors to help their people thrive in a complex world. When employees connect their work and experiences to concepts that matter to them, they feel more satisfied, productive, and engaged in their work. And when  people are more engaged, they are more likely to achieve better work outcomes and less likely to leave their organization. This matters even more right now when 1 in 4 employees plan on looking for a new job post-pandemic.

The good news is that you don’t have to be a mastermind to use metaphors well. Finding the right metaphors is like going on an adventure. In our People Development workshop at LifeLabs Learning, we teach managers metaphor-generating questions to guide direct reports in discovering more meaning and motivation in their work. Here are 3 ways to kickstart the adventure with your team:

1) Listening for metaphors that matter


Listening for key words or concepts your people use daily can illuminate how they think and feel. You can then use those ideas to help them shine a light on things that are hard for them to clearly see.

Example: One manager we worked with shared a story about her direct report struggling with high workload volume due to rapid company growth. After returning from some PTO, he admitted to his manager, “It’s been a tsunami since I got back from my vacation.” 

The manager had noticed her direct report referencing a tsunami a couple of times in their conversation, so she stuck with the metaphor instead of letting it pass by and asked: How big is the tsunami? What caused it? Where are you in the tsunami? What sort of help do you need to survive? What can allow you to stay afloat for the next 30 minutes? The direct report shared that he felt relieved after talking through those questions. Even though the amount of work didn’t change, he had clarity on what was causing him to feel overwhelmed and what his next steps were to navigate out of the post-vacation storm. 

Questions to try:

  • You mentioned this uncertain situation feeling like X. Can you describe how it’s like X? 
  • What caused X to happen? Where are you in X?
  • What’s blocking you from navigating out of X? What’s one step you can take in that direction?

2) Uniting the team through tough times 


In an ideal world, a team comes together to achieve a shared goal. In the real world, so much gets in the way of that actually happening (cue: team changes, acquisitions, global pandemics). You can use metaphors as a powerful reminder to the team of how they’re more connected by what unites them than divided by the challenges they face.

Example: One manager was leading her team through restructuring and layoffs brought on by the pandemic. She drew on a metaphor of a journey in describing the change to the team, preparing them for the rocky, mountainous terrain ahead, and getting their perspective on how to get through it together.

The metaphor provided shared language for the team to process their emotions and talk about what they were embarking on. Together, they could more easily talk about: What did they feel prepared and unprepared for? What excited them about the journey? What felt like the biggest unknown?

In a team meeting, they shared ideas on what the arc of the journey might be and feel like for them, how it was going to be difficult and painful at times, what they each needed to sustain them, and where they wanted to arrive together at the end of it all. They accepted that the journey wouldn’t be easy, but felt reassured that they could overcome it as a team.

Questions to try:

  • What are some metaphors you hear us using as a team or company? How are they more or less helpful?
  • How is X challenge like Y metaphor? 
  • What is good about Y? What is hard about Y?

3) Developing skills and knowledge


Drawing parallels  between development areas and what people care about can get them more excited to grow their skills and knowledge. They tap into what feels meaningful to them, powering how they think about their growth while giving them greater ownership over it.

Example: A previous manager and direct report chatted during a 1-1 about how to improve his  communication skills. The direct report decided to focus on vocal variety as a way to become a persuasive and compelling presenter. He liked the idea, but had no idea where to start. 

His manager knew he was an avid dancer. So during their conversation, she asked: How is vocal variety like dancing? What moves do you do well? Where do you need to add in some new moves to engage your partner (audience)? When she asked these questions, it was like a light switch flipped on in his  brain. He thought about vocal variety in a totally new way, had a clearer idea of how to improve this skill, and felt more energized to start working on it.

Questions to try:

  • How is this knowledge/skill like X motivator/interest of yours?
  • What feels easiest about X? What feels hardest?
  • What do you want to try more of? Less of?

Humans want to feel a part of something bigger than themselves, but too often we feel stranded, alone, and disconnected. Metaphors can be the bridge that unites your team and takes them from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Check out our Manager CORE 1 Program to rapidly develop your organization's people leaders in what research shows to be the CORE skills of great managers--effective 1-1s, feedback, coaching, and productivity & prioritization. 

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