Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Metaphors and Organizational Conflict

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Metaphors and Organizational Conflict

Article excerpt

Many people hold a metaphor that accurately describes their perception of the organization in which they work. The metaphor also determines the way people perceive, remember, and analyze information they receive. However, any single metaphor limits people's perception by blocking and distorting the information encountered. Much of the conflict in the organization is caused by people holding different metaphors, oblivious to the fact that they behave in accordance with their metaphor. They are like people speaking in different languages, but totally unaware of their inability to communicate. This article tackles this problem and offers several suggestions on how to improve internal organization relationships using our current knowledge of metaphors. We believe that our ideas provide yet another perspective on the use of the metaphor for understanding organizational conflict. We believe it constitutes a significant addition to this fascinating field.

We use metaphors to describe an experience or an object graphically. In a metaphor there is an implicit or explicit argument that A is like B. Webster's Dictionary defines a metaphor as "a figure of speech containing an implied comparison, in which a word or phrase ordinarily and primarily used for one thing is applied to another" - thus A is B. This process of comparison exchange and interaction between A and B itself creates a new meaning. It is widely accepted that a metaphor includes, or is a transference of, meaning. In etymological terms, metaphor actually means "transference" - from the Greek metah, meaning "behind," and opherein, meaning to carry.

The organizational metaphor is an image used to describe the organization. For example, there are people who perceive their workplace as a family unit, others as a battlefield, or as a machine, or even as a sinking ship. The organizational metaphor is the pair of spectacles through which members examine the process and events in the organization. Using these glasses, they perceive, interpret, and understand the occurrences in the organization.


There are three methods generally used by analysts investigating organizations. The first approach, which deals with the investigation of the formal organization, was developed from classical management theory and tends to use models arising from the traditional managerial perspective. It focuses on practical results and encourages empirical research. The second approach deals with the sociology of organizations and is based on the work of Max Weber. The third, the psychological approach, concentrates on the investigation of the individuals within the organization (Burrell & Morgan, 1979). The use of metaphor as an instrument for analyzing organizations is part of the psychological approach. It is also a sociological tool, because the metaphor serves as a marker that divides the members of the organization into groups and thus effects the process at a macro level.

Analysts concerned with the concept of the organizational metaphor have concentrated their efforts on two particular areas -- organizational culture and organizational climate. These two concepts deal with the ways in which members of the organization give meaning to their environment and the way it influences their behavior. Both the culture and the climate of the organization are determined mainly by the socialization process and the symbolic interaction between group members (Reichers & Schneider, 1990).

When we examine the organizational metaphor from this angle, it is perceived as giving meaning to the environment and as a symbolic expression of the atmosphere and process. According to this approach, the social world is no more than a subjective structure of individuals who are creating a social world of meaning through common language and daily interaction (Burrell & Morgan, 1979). People create their own reality individually or in coordination with others. …

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