Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

Metaphoric Processes and Organisational Change: A Contemporary Psychoanalytic Perspective

Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

Metaphoric Processes and Organisational Change: A Contemporary Psychoanalytic Perspective

Article excerpt


Metaphor is often understood as a figure of speech, or the act of seeing something in terms of something else as in a symbol or implicit comparison. Metaphor is also an imaginative and unconscious process of mind central to the possibility of constructing meaningful, relational, and collective exchange. It is at the heart of our mind's conceptual systems.

Metaphor transcends words. It provides connections. It bridges diverse people, groups, and organisations. Metaphor is shaped by emotional as well as cognitive unconscious process. Metaphor is rooted in the human facility to communicate experience and emotion, and to make human contact. With metaphor individuals have the potential to experience resonance with (alien) others, across borders and boundaries (self and other, subject and object), and amid diverse groups. In this article, I explore the unconscious imagination and its metaphoric processes, out of which meaningful human experience, mutual understanding, and consensual validation, originate. From a psychoanalytic perspective, I submit that the fluidity and openness of metaphoric processes and unconscious imagination produce group and organisational change; as it is also true that frozen and closed, or fixed metaphoric processes, block the potential for positive transformation and change. I wish to begin with a brief case example of frozen metaphor, intended to illuminate the discussion of metaphoric processes, imagination, and change, to follow.

Case example: frozen metaphors and public works

Many years ago a public works department requested an organisational study.2 The presenting problem articulated by a newly appointed director described an agency threatened with legislative defunding due to routinely exceeding budgetary limitations and scheduled time-tables for work completion on construction projects. In fact, the agency had gained a poor reputation for construction sites where workers stood by equipment awaiting authorisation for change orders and requisitions. The new director felt as if he had inherited a dysfunctional agency.

In the process of organisational assessment3 including interviews, observations, factual and historical data collection, participants frequently referred to themselves as "working in silos". Narrative data from interviews of architects, engineers, accountants, lawyers, administrators, and construction managers, as well as observational and conversational data over the course of six months confirmed the frequency of the workers' application of the silo metaphor. Ultimately we came to understand that workers were describing frozen rather than fluid metaphoric processes; they experienced themselves as working inside rigid disciplinary silos. The concept of silos as frozen metaphor was intended, consciously and unconsciously, to describe participants' incapacity to exchange viewpoints, experiences, ideas, technical knowledge, and feelings across boundaries and between professional subcultures, despite the fact that collectively they shared responsibility for the successful completion of agency construction projects. From interviews and observations of participants, we learned that the frozen metaphor of the silo represented their embodied and unconscious emotions. Participants described their experiences of lateral and horizontal relations with adjectives such as hard and sharp surfaces, suffocation, stifling of ideas and emotions, excessively limited mobility, and entrapment. In contrast to the frozen metaphoric processes and closed-mindedness experienced by agency workers, I want to juxtapose fluid metaphoric processes and open-mindedness that would enable boundary crossing and interdisciplinary collaboration. Consequently, participants with the capacity for fluid and open metaphoric processes and with less debilitating anxiety are capable of sharing their diverse and distinct experiences with colleagues across interdisciplinary boundaries.

While there is more detail to this case study than presented here, the point of offering this as a case vignette is to provide the reader with a point of reference for comprehending the significance of metaphoric processes. …

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