Simon Martin
05 June, 2018

When we join a new organisation, or move within organisations, it is not uncommon to experience a bit of linguistic disorientation. Groups and sub-groups have often developed their own vocabulary and way of talking about things. It’s normally possible, with some targeted questions and a good memory, to work out how to understand the various acronyms and abbreviations. However, there are often nuances beyond mere naming conventions that take longer to get a feel for. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz talks about man being caught in a web of signification that he is weaving himself (Geertz, 1993). He is talking here about the distinctly human need for networked sense-making in groups. This process leads to the co-creation of interconnected ways of doing and understanding things that we sometimes call organisational cultures. When we enter new organisations and experience this linguistic disorientation, it is an indication that we are moving into a culture which will require time spent participating in and making sense of, if we are to begin to understand and co-create it.

However, it is not enough to simply learn the language and symbols of an organisational culture in order to thrive. Geertz’s choice of the metaphor of being caught in a web suggests the shadow side of cultures too. The web once woven begins to define and delineate the world, and can entrap as well as enable.

Language as constraint?

I am put in mind of a passage in the Irish writer James Joyce’s coming of age novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (first published 1917). Stephen Dedalus, in his 20s as a student in Dublin, is listening to the assertions and ramblings of his English university professor at Trinity College, and reflects to himself – “my soul frets in the shadow of his language”. In the specific context of the novel this has to do with the dominance of the English language over the native Irish language. The metaphor of “fretting” (in its sense of “following a narrow channel”) carries the idea of the potential constraint of thought through forcing its expression in particular linguistic forms. There is a political point Joyce is making here about the particular history of 20thCentury Anglo-Irish relations. However, he is also making a more philosophical point about the nature of choice-making in language as an act of narrowing or emphasis, which, if we are not aware of it, can limit.

Lakoff & Johnson in their work in this field see metaphor as “pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action”. They argue that these linguistic concepts “structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people” (Lakoff & Johnson, 2003). One example they look at is how, in the current English vernacular (and this may change over time), our metaphorical language for arguing is coloured by images of conflict. We “defend” an argument. A critical article may have a “line of attack”. In a discussion, we may “take sides”, or “occupy a position”. If metaphor is to understand one thing in terms of another, then the metaphorical connections we make in language will shape our interpretation. So in organisational life, how we talk about things will affect not only the way in which we are perceived, but will also start to shape how we think about things and act. For example, if we talk regularly about driving sales, change, or innovation, we are choosing to lay a particular emphasis which will influence the way we and others think and act in relation to this. This may or may not be helpful. However, if we are using this language unconsciously and without considering the potential limits of these metaphors, then we risk narrowing our choices of how to think and act without even realising it.

Language as enabler?

In A Portrait of the Artist, Joyce gives the phrase “my soul frets in the shadow of his language” to Stephen Dedalus. However, as the author, it is, at a “meta-level”, also an utterance from Joyce. And here I think the sense of fret as in “fretwork”, intricate ornamental design, is at play too. There is the idea here of the creative possibilities of constraint. Any writer is forced to make limiting choices about how they express thought and emotion in the vocabulary and syntax of their own (or someone else’s!) language. However, this constraint can force a charge into the choices which generates creativity. The Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig (1910 – 1996), credits the poetic spark in his language to his mother’s side of the family, Gaelic speakers from the isle of Scalpay in the Outer Hebrides. He notes how Scots Gaelic is heavily metaphorical, and often uses compound nouns (where two words are yoked together) to express ideas (MacCaig, 2010). The clarity of the two images somehow brings about something different through their being forced alongside one another; like the energy released through pushing two opposing magnetic poles together. In an organisational change context, this feels to me to be directly related to Bushe & Marshak’s work around the idea of the importance of generativity and generative images for transformation. They define generativity as –

the creation of new images, metaphors, physical representations, and so on that have two qualities: they change how people think so that new options for decisions and/or actions become available to them, and they are compelling images that people want to act on

(Bushe & Marshak, 2014)

One example of this which they give is the notion of “sustainable development”. This term may seem commonplace to us now. However, at the time it was coined (first major appearance at a UN conference in 1972), it created a generative central space where corporate and commercial viewpoints could be considered alongside questions of environmental and societal impact. All parties could identify with and were intrigued by the possibilities of the “generative image”.

And this is where metaphor and language can play a significant enabling role in organisational change.Bushe & Marshak talk about there being three types of “occurrence” which bring about organisational change-

A disruption in the social construction of organizational reality leads to a more complex re-organization

A change to one or more core narratives takes place.

A generative image is introduced or surfaces that provides new and compelling alternatives for thinking and acting.

(Bushe & Marshak, 2015)

Organisational language and metaphor are at the heart of all of these. They are a medium through which we make sense and construct organisational reality. They are a medium through which we tell each other stories and weave the webs which make up culture. And, if used consciously, they can provide a generative source of creative energy for change.

Our great poets and novelists have known this for centuries; and before them, for millennia, the storytellers of the world’s many oral traditions. In our organisational lives, too often, we have lost this connection. If you’d like to explore with us more how these ideas can help us with change and transformation, do get in touch and join the conversation –


Bushe, G.R. & Marshak, R.J. (2014). The dialogic mindset in organization development. Research in Organizational Change and Development, 22, 55‐97

Bushe, G.R & Marshak, R.J. (2015). Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change.Oakland, CA. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Geertz, C. (1993). The interpretation of cultures.London: Fontana Press

Joyce, J. (1994).  Portrait of the Artist.Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

Lakoff & Johnson (2003). Metaphors We Live By.Chicago: University of Chicago Press

MacCaig, N. (2010). The Poems of Norman MacCaig.Edinburgh: Polygon

Image – top right:“Poets’ Pub”, Alexander Moffat, 1980, Oil on canvas, National Galleries Scotland

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