Metaphors have played an important role in shaping the study of organizations and organizational communication since the 1980s. Various principles of metaphor have been used to conceptualize the abstract and complex domains of organizations and organizational communication; to imagine new constructs, theoretical insights, and perspectives; to analyze and understand organizational culture; and to facilitate organizational change (Lakoff 1993).
An early and influential consideration of metaphorical images analyzed organizational theory through a set of eight metaphors as diverse as “machines,” “cultures,” “psychic prisons,” and “instruments of domination” (Morgan 1986, 1997). This analysis highlighted the partiality of each metaphor, illustrating the idea that organizations are too complex to be understood completely as any one. In addition, multiple and overlapping metaphors have been used to characterize organizational communication research, including those of conduit, lens, linkage, performance, symbol, multiple voices, and discursive forms. This analysis also implies that the complexity of organizational communication requires the use of multiple metaphors in research and illustrates how the relationship between organization and communication shifts within and across metaphors, between those of containment, co-production, and equivalency (Putnam et al. 1996).
A range of organizational constructs have been reconceptualized through the use of metaphor, including the organizing process itself (Eisenberg 1990), career models (Buzzanell & Goldzwig 1991), negotiation (Stutman & Putnam 1994), organizational socialization (Smith & Turner 1995), emotion management (Krone & Morgan 2000), international teamwork (Shockley-Zalabak 2002), and employee cynicism and resistance (Fleming 2005). In the process, these studies have illustrated the limits of traditional constructs and opened up space for the development of new knowledge and insights.
In addition, metaphors have played a role in the analysis of organizational culture. Scholars have examined the external and internal coherence of metaphor clusters to understand the social construction of organizational reality (Koch & Deetz 1981), and the use of metaphor to better understand power relations and the processes by which systems of consensual meaning are constructed and challenged (Deetz & Mumby 1985). Through an analysis of root metaphors, scholars have also demonstrated how the images of drama and family embedded in organizational culture help explain conflict and change in Disneyland (Smith & Eisenberg 1987).
Because metaphorical expressions both reflect and construct an organization’s system of meanings, their use can both facilitate and block change. The skillful use of metaphorical language is considered important for leaders and others who wish to manage innovation and change in organizations. Organizational development consultants work with metaphor in a variety of ways as a tool to diagnose problems and design appropriate interventions (see Oswick & Grant 1996 for examples). Some of this work is noteworthy in its attempt to acknowledge and creatively work with the inherent ambiguity and potential unmanageability of organizational metaphor (Barrett & Cooperrider 1990).
Future research on organizational metaphors supports the turn toward discourse in organizational studies and organizational communication research. The greatest contributions to understanding will come from the continued study of metaphors in use among organizational members (Oswick & Grant 1996). Such language-centered research will continue to inform understandings of the discursive production and reproduction of organizations (Deetz 1986), and the ways in which some metaphorical expressions become dominant while others are suppressed (Inns 2002). The study of metaphors in use also will continue as a complement to the study of other forms of organizational discourse such as irony (Oswick et al. 2004).
- Barrett, F., & Cooperrider, D. (1990). Generative metaphor intervention: A new behavioral approach for working with systems divided by conflict and caught in defensive perception. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 23, 219 – 244.
- Buzzanell, P. J., & Goldzwig, S. R. (1991). Linear and nonlinear career models. Management Communication Quarterly, 4, 466 – 505.
- Deetz, S. A. (1986). Metaphors and the discursive production and reproduction of organizations. In L. Thayer (ed.), Organization-communication: Emerging perspectives. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, pp. 168–182.
- Deetz, S., & Mumby, D. (1985). Metaphors, information, and power. In B. D. Ruben (ed.), Information and behavior. New Brunswick: Transaction Books, vol. 1, pp. 369 –386.
- Eisenberg, E. (1990). Jamming: Transcendence through organizing. Communication Research, 17, 139–164.
- Fleming, P. (2005). Metaphors of resistance. Management Communication Quarterly, 19, 45 – 66.
- Grant, D., & Oswick, C. (eds.) (1996). Metaphor and organization. London: Sage.
- Inns, D. (2002). Metaphor in the literature of organizational analysis: A preliminary taxonomy and a glimpse at a humanities-based perspective. Organization, 9, 305 – 330.
- Koch, S., & Deetz, S. (1981). Metaphor analysis of social reality in organizations. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 9, 1–15.
- Krone, K. J., & Morgan, J. M. (2000). Emotion metaphors in management: The Chinese experience. In S. Fineman (ed.), Emotion in organizations, 2nd edn. London: Sage, pp. 83 –100.
- Lakoff, G. (1993). The contemporary theory of metaphor. In A. Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and thought, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 202 – 251.
- Morgan, G. (1986). Images of organization. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Morgan, G. (1997). Images of organization, 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Oswick, C., & Grant, D. (eds.) (1996). Organisation development: Metaphorical explorations. London: Pitman.
- Oswick, C., Putnam, L. L., & Keenoy, T. (2004). Tropes, discourse and organizing. In D. Grant, C. Hardy, C. Oswick, & L. Putnam (eds.), The Sage handbook of organizational discourse. London: Sage, pp. 105–127.
- Putnam, L. L., Phillips, N., & Chapman, P. (1996). Metaphors of communication and organization. In S. Clegg, C. Hardy, & W. Nord (eds.), Handbook of organization studies. London: Sage, pp. 375 – 408.
- Shockley-Zalabak, P. (2002). Protean places: Teams across time and space. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30, 231– 250.
- Smith, R. C., & Eisenberg, E. M. (1987). Conflict at Disneyland: A root-metaphor analysis. Communication Monographs, 54, 367 –380.
- Smith, R. C., & Turner, P. (1995). A social constructionist reconfiguration of metaphor analysis: An application of SCMA to organizational socialization theorizing. Communication Monographs, 62, 152 –181.
- Stutman, R. K., & Putnam, L. L. (1994). The consequences of language: A metaphorical look at the legalization of organizations. In S. B. Sitkin & R. J. Bies (eds.), The legalistic organization. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 281– 302.