The use of metaphors to describe actions and/or subjects imparts deeper understanding about such actions and subjects. According to Haste (1993) metaphors occupies an indispensable place in our daily communications, interactions, relationship building, and in extension our understanding of the world.
Common phrases such as, “working as a donkey”, “he is the black sheep in the family”, time is money, or even “he is the head of the family” makes meaningful impacts to conversations and relationships as they help to create deeper and concrete delineations on seemingly trivial issues which otherwise would have been brushed aside as mere rhetoric. When applied in an organizational situation, metaphors can go a long way in enhancing sobriety at the workplace as they afford a purposive and critical analysis of seemingly complex organizational challenges ultimately solving them in a mutual manner (Morgan, 1980, p. 611, 616).
As such, being the custodians of both organizational and employees’ needs in an organization, managers need to practice and actively apply the concepts of managing using metaphors. This paper attempts to explore the dynamics of managing metaphorically by utilizing a real-life managerial problem experienced at a workplace involving a clash between personal needs and organizational obligations.
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To achieve this, a multi-frame analysis will be employed where insights from three metaphorical theories: organizations as brains; organizations’ as psychic prisons, and: organizations as instruments of domination will be juggled to create a coherent account of the situation. Throughout the paper it will be argued that management by use of metaphors creates a whole lot of new meanings and understanding of innately entrenched organizational challenges ultimately solving them amicably. Personal Managerial Problem
Managers have got a whole host of organizational tasks ranging from laying down workplace plans of action; organizing those plans into groups, projects and programs; allocating appropriate number of staffs to those projects; acting as leaders to workplace groups; making timely controls on all workplace activities, and; offering directions on the most efficient approaches to seemingly complex organizational tasks (Gomez-Mejia, Balkin, & Cardy, 2008, p. 20). A lapse and/or a breach on any of these core obligations may result in an ugly managerial problem whose shocks can penetrate an organizations core pillars.
A colleague at work was recently embroiled in a tussle with the company’s managing director following an emotional decision to abscond work on a Friday to attend to religious obligations. The colleague is an entry level management trainee and has been working with the organization for about six months when the incident occurred. Though the colleague had already struck a deal with the immediate line manager to work on Sundays so as to compensate for the time spent attending to Fridays’ religious obligations, this time the MD gave out new instructions that no one would be allowed to abscond work during normal working days (i. e., from Monday to Saturday) due to the growing bank of customers that the organization has been attending to in recent days. Before then, the colleague was very committed to his work and always ensured that all pending work was cleared on Thursdays even if it meant extending late into the night. As such, the MD’s decision to deny the colleague permission during one such Friday resulted in absconding work, a thing that did not go down well with the MD who felt the colleague deserved to be sacked for violating a key organizational regulation.
The concept of ‘organization as brains’ metaphor holds that organizations just like human brains generate knowledge, process tasks, and can be relied on to crack seemingly complex challenges (Morgan, 1980, p. 112). It entails organizations as organisms with permeable boundaries capable of allowing the transfer of knowledge and receiving knowledge, and acting on such knowledge. Basing on Richards (1936) postulations, organisms in an organization act as the drivers of meaning on key organizational tasks and relations in a brain-like manner.
Whereas the brain that is made up of numerous constituents which add up to the complete and smooth functioning of the brain in its capacity as the nerve center for all the body functions, an organization on the other hand functions in a similarly structured manner whereby roles, tasks, and duties are distributed to various organizational elements that are expected to work in a complimentary manner to deliver their mandate within the expected levels.
On its part, the ‘organizations as psychic prison’ metaphor holds that organizations are their own impediments to the smooth pursuit of organizational and personal goals that they purport to pursue (Morgan, 1997). Seemingly cherished organizational virtues, beliefs, values, and customs can work against the very noble organizational goals and objectives due to the rationality with which organizations pursue their ends.
This premise is supported by Morgan when he scathingly postulates, “the ways in which organizations and their members become trapped by constructions of reality that, at best, give an imperfect grasps on the world” (p. 216), in his generalization that sometimes or even all times irrational approaches are more powerful in dealing with organizational tasks and challenges alike than does rational approaches. Most importantly, Morgan’s psychic prison metaphor entails the application of ethical principles when dealing with organizational tasks and challenges even in the face of seemingly irrational approaches.
To this end, an organization resembles a prison in all measures at least looking at it from a hierarchical perspective where the senior managers presses their juniors who in turn press those below them in the process of getting organizational tasks done while upholding the highest levels of discipline and respect for authority. Foucault (1995) supports this premise when he asserts that indeed it is “surprising that the prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, [organizations] which all resemble prisons” (p. 227), given the seemingly similar processing bureaucracies of respect to authority, obligatory responsibilities, disciplining of wayward behavior, etc. The ‘organizations as instruments of domination’ metaphor holds that organizations achieves their ends through the deliberate application of crude means such as oppression, use of force, divide and rule tactics, outright discrimination, exploitation and underpayment, unhealthy competition among the workers, as well as alienation (Morag, 1986). Many workers are dying in millions in companies in North America as well as other places due to causes that sometimes are within the law.
This underscores Morgan (2006, p. 292) postulation that organization are dangerous, at least their capacities as instruments of domination, or even as a mirrored image of a “ugly face” as the former British Prime Minister, Edward Heath reasoned (p. 293).
From a linguistic point of view a metaphor may seem to be a descriptive literary device that is employed by writers and/or speakers to describe an activity or doer of such activity in a manner that brings out a one-on-one comparative juxtaposition of two things that necessarily need not be analogous but are to some extent compatible.
Or just plainly as in Ricoeur (1977) “giving [a] thing a name that belongs to something else” (p. 13) with view of imparting the power to “grasp any hitherto unknown relations between things” (p. 80). For instance, “Harry is the lion of the family” juxtaposes Harry, a human being against a Lion, an animal known for its bravery to indicate that Harry equals the Lion in terms of bravery. Similarly, everyday organizational rhetoric or otherwise is arranged in a manner akin to metaphorical rules of literature in view of making them more comprehensible (Gmur, 2006, p.1).
A conceptual view of the three metaphorical frames juggled in this paper to analyze the managerial problem explained above it can be argued that they both aim at addressing the problem from their respective perspectives so as to shed more light and to delineate it in a manner capable of getting it solved mutually so that at the end all the parties will realize the “aha” feeling. This argument is advised by the notion that organizational metaphors are based on paradigmatic postulations which are normally based organizational realities (Gmur, 2006, p. 1; Morgan, 1980), for example if the MD would have been well versed with the concepts, meaning, and application of ‘organization as brains’, ‘organizations as psychic prisons’ and ‘organizations as instruments of domination’ it would have been very easy for him to accommodate the colleagues personal needs on the basis that they are justified and that the colleague always ensured that the time consumed during such personal obligations was duly recovered. In explanation of his organization as psychic prison premise, Morgan (1997) ambitiously asserts that: All forms of organization and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us to see, understand, and imagine situations in partial ways. Metaphors create insight. But they also distort. They have strengths. But they also have limitations. In creating ways of seeing, they create ways of not seeing. Hence can be no single theory or metaphor that gives an all-purpose point of view. There can be no correct’ theory for structuring everything we do.
Apparently, the MD lacks this critical vision and imagination of looking at employee personal needs from alternative perspectives other than the organizational goals. Looking at the problem from alternative perspective will definitely lead to granting an official permission of Fridays given the noble reason behind it. Morgan (1986) asserts that organizations can never be rational, at least in practical terms given that they labor limitedly to pass critical information about their inherent goals and managerial tasks to their employees. This undermines their position as "brains".
As such, employees end up relying on limited amount of information regarding critical organizational processes and theories behind organizational decisions, that employees are not given enough information that can enable them to pursue alternative methods of solving organizational challenges, and that due to this inherent indifference on the part of the management, employees tend to fall short of the set goals and objectives simply because they cannot link appropriate organizational values to the intended outcomes with much precision.
To some extent these organizational shortcomings can be attributed on the rationality of the approaches adopted at the management level and together they are directly responsible to the organizational challenges and/or problems that arise on the day to day running of an organization. Taking the organizational problem presented above, it is clear that the MD does not indulge in procedural/ethical bureaucracy in pursuing serious employee issues given his blunt decision to deny the co-worker an opportunity to attend to religious obligations and in turn threatening to fire him.
If “all theories of organization and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that lead us to see, understand, and manage organizations in distinctive yet partial ways” (Morgan, 1986, p. 4) then the failure on the part of the MD to allow for flexibility in juggling both organizational and personal/religious matters raises the red flag and snaps to close the psychic prison gates that the MD and the authority that he represents resides.
Clearly, the colleague was more than ready to compensate the spent time by working late into the night and sometimes even on Sundays as a show of goodwill to the company; additionally he had a clean record discipline wise. Metaphorically, the MD failed to understand the importance of religion to the workmate or feigned ignorance hence exposing his weaknesses as a non-reformer and rigid manager who does not understand the importance of diversity in juggling both organizational and personal obligations in equal measures.
This lack of flexibility and feigned ignorance on personal needs while upholding organizational ones is in itself victim to the MDs own rationality and therefore a psychic prison. Moreover, the MDs seemingly unethical decision to increase the size of the employee handbook reeks of domination and curtailment to basic personal privileges such as attending to religious obligations.
Given that the other employees including the MD are given time to attend to their religious obligations on Sundays denying the workmate an opportunity to do ostensibly because it interferers with critical organizational tasks and regulations is akin to confining the workmate in psychic prison of his own. Threatening to sack him for violating the MDs instructions only serves to embolden the bars and walls that surrounds this prison as it coincides with Foucault’s (1995) postulations of “placing individuals under observation [as a form] of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures” (p. 227). It is clear that the MDs decision to deny a basic right to attending to religious obligations is victim to workplace bureaucracy and domination that Morgan (1986) warns against. For instance, he cautions that the hidden meanings that underlie workplace bureaucracies such as work scheduling and planning, implementation and control of such plans through increasing the volume of the employee code of conduct handbook are all constructs of psychic prisons which employees should be wary of.
To some extent these bureaucracies may be beneficial to both the organization and the employees particularly when the employees adjust into the system well just as Morgan asserts, “If bureaucracies are anal phenomena encouraging an anal style of life then … [and] when the employees fit the anal character … [and] derive hidden satisfaction…” (p. 209) then they will tend to be more productive.
It is clear that the workmate was happy with the personalized arrangement with the respective line manager as he never questioned the authority and that he continued carrying out his duties without absconding until the MD intervened by fattening g the employees’ handbook and hence the thread that held employee freedoms snapped closing the psychic prison hence creating an environment fit for domination.
Looking at the managerial problem presented above from the ‘organization as instruments of domination’ frame it can be argued that the company had succeeded in getting the colleague to work extra hours without pay so as to secure free Fridays for a period of six months. Moreover, the MDs threats that the co-worker should be fired are an extension of this domination given there were reasonable facts to show that the workmate acted within reasonable personal obligations when he absconded work.
This argument is buttressed by Ryan and Oestreich (1991) who asserts that to some extent organizations may achieve their goals by instilling great fear and apprehension among its employees. Owing to the fact that there should be equal workplace treatment to all the employees irrespective of their religious affiliations, race, gender, ethnicity, etc., then denying one to attend to his or her religious obligations or making them work extra hours for free to make up for the time spent in attending such religious obligations is akin to discrimination which in this case fits the descriptions of ‘organizations as instruments of domination’ metaphor. Moreover, management from a Whyte’s (2002) point of view entails domination, issuance of commands, use of absolute power to suppress any form of truancy and high headedness on the part of the employees.
Interestingly, just as the coworker agreed to unquestioningly work on extra hours without pay, management by dominance also entails the absolute submission on the part of the employees to be managed even through seemingly brutal ways as a horse submits itself to be ridden on. On a contrasting note absconding work can be viewed as a decision of the last resort on the part of a worker who felt pushed to the wall by the seemingly domineering organization. Sometimes even the horse refuses to be ridden and by behaving in a giddy manner.
From the ‘organization as brains’ perspective it can be argued that just as sometimes the human brain needs to be boosted from outside so that it can learn new things, the MD should have sought a word from the line manager who all along have been achieving his targets by assuming alternative means to achieve both personal and organizational ends. This has allowed the company to remain competitive in terms of its ability to process new knowledge, ability to share such knowledge among all its employees, and ability to establish network channels within its organizational system with minimal challenges.
Apparently, up until the MDs intervention this seemingly irrational/informal interplay had succeeded in potentially explosive streamlining managerial challenge. Tellingly, it is easy for senior managers to form relations with the low end employees and therefore conceptualize their personal needs in a deeper manner; it is also easy to juggle organizational and personal needs when organizational brains are boosted.
Nonetheless, to achieve this seemingly tasking feat, organizations’ need to formulate structures that will allow for knowledge creation, management and utilization. Evidence shows that knowledge is the tool that pushes an organization into achieving its objectives. However, such knowledge is of no value if it is not shared amongst the employees. Additionally, this knowledge is not useful if it is not subjected to the appropriate processing procedures to make it compatible with organizations unique needs (Armstrong, 2001).
Recommendations and Conclusion
On their part, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue that, “in all aspects of life … we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously, by means of metaphor” (p. 155). In this regards, the company needs to adopt sound knowledge management (KM) practices to ensure that the acquired knowledge is relevant to organizational challenges.
For instance, it is true that presented organizational challenge touches on workplace diversity and therefore the company should embrace this diversity too. Through the process of KM and social learning theory (SLT) the management team as well as the junior employees will be imparted with new and versatile knowledge strands that can be applied to solve similar or even different organizational challenges ins the futures.
Seemingly, the input from storytelling at the organizational level is glaring missing in this scenario, as such, the company should invest on organizational storytelling so as acquaint the management as well as the lower end employees of important organizational and personal norms (Boje, 2001), values, and commitments and most importantly impart them with the capacities to juggle equally as Morgan (1997) asserts. It has been extensively shown in this paper that the use of metaphor goes beyond the everyday linguistics needs; it cuts across the core of the daily musings and thoughts in a way that surpasses mere rhetoric.
As a matter of fact, the use of metaphors has taken the management field by a storm in regards to initiating new relationships among employing as well as the delineation of organizational values and norms in a way that promotes productivity. The managerial problem presented as a case study underscores the need to employ metaphorical management practices as a means to an end that is characterized by mutually juggling organizational and personal obligations in a way that promotes motivation and the feeling of worthiness of the part of the employees.
When managers conceptualize that organizations are brains; that organizations are psychic prisons and; that organization are instruments of domination then they can act diligently ensuring that they harvest the healthiest seeds from each of these three metaphorical frames in view of planting them in their organizations so as to reap bounty harvests in the long run.
If we know that “the challenge facing the modern managers is to become accomplished in the art of using metaphor: To find appropriate ways of seeing, understanding, and shaping the situations with which they have to deal” (Morgan, 1986, 348) then the need to employ metaphorical frames in tackling the daily organizational tasks and challenges cannot be underscored.
In extension, if workplace dominance and oppression on the part of the higher end managers as was the case with the MD are to be addressed in a mutual manner then “we must remove the hierarchical walls that we’ve built around us … [by moving] away from the concept that the boss is [ever right] and all powerful” (Morin, 1995, p. 57). Ultimately, this will be a step forward in achieving workplace diversity and fluidity by making the workplace an embodiment of shared values and concerns to the inherent needs of both the employees and the organization.
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