Words to Lead by: Shaping Company Culture

Think about the words that people use to describe your organization. Are you going to war each day, with language like “beating targets,” “market dominance” or “fighting fires”?  Or, is the focus on people growth, with terms like “No Walls” and “One Voice.” Would you call the company a “well-oiled machine” or an “emergent lifeform?”

The metaphor we use to describe our organizations and our work shape our perceptions of both.  Images of Organization, a bestselling organization culture book by Gareth Morgan, describes a powerful organizational culture theory based on metaphor and imagery.  For example, organizations may be viewed as mechanistic, information processing entities, governing bodies or as organisms.

So how do you go about identifying and changing organizational culture, to change the metaphor or to increase workplace diversity?  Here are four steps:

  1. Listen to and write down common words that leaders use in your organization. Notice the words that create imagery and see if you can identify common themes.
  2. Consider the benefits that come from those images – how do they motivate the team and drive it forward? How might they attract customers?
  3. Get curious about how the images used in the organization make people, or specific groups, feel left out or uncomfortable. For example, a company that describes itself as “fighting the good fight” may not attract people who prefer to be more relationship-driven.
  4. If you believe a change in the organization culture may be beneficial, start identifying new or expanded images and metaphors that you believe may signal a wider set of values. Begin to use these with your teams and see if and how they react. If you can, talk with your team about the role of metaphors in shaping culture.

Words have power, but often, we don’t realize how much our images say about who we are and what we value. So, instead of preparing for battle tomorrow, try getting ready for the next adventure.