The language we use

Much has been written about the difficulties of creating an environment conducive to innovation. We further find that change management and how companies could change their organisational culture is one of the most researched topics in management science. The consensus is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to challenge organisational inertia.

Some blame cultural or generational influences while others blame social media and a host of other reasons. However, research related to the influence of language, especially the use of metaphors, may contain clues why we continue to follow the same tracks despite efforts to change lanes.

Ideas do not come out of thin air. Metaphorical language activates the imagination, which in turn leads to new ideas. On the basis of linguistic evidence, we have found that most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature. Metaphors engage the right hemisphere of the brain, which controls our mental imagery (the same function that allows us to dream) and is what structure how we perceive, how we think, and what we do.

The metaphors we use have an influence on what thoughts are activated.  And the reality is that much of what we learn in business school is based on systems designed hundreds of years ago during the industrial revolution. The very nature of the metaphors we commonly use in business inhibits lateral thought. Some examples where we still use the railway industry to express ideas are:

  • A middle-manager is called a ‘line manager’.
  • A good one is said to ‘work like a machine’.
  • A project has a time’line’ and a dead‘line’, and when things go wrong we say the project is ‘off-track’, or ‘on-track’ when all is well.
  • Sales are in the pipe‘line’ and when things gain momentum, it is ‘picking up steam’ and will soon be working like a ‘well-oiled machine’, unless it ‘runs out of steam’. Then we will ‘stop in our tracks’ or are heading for a ‘train smash’.
  • Even computers are said to go ‘offline’.

The ‘bottom line’ is that we tend to talk in terms that invoke a linear and automated approach. If our language does influence the creativity of our thinking, as suggested by research, we should attempt to speak with a language conducive to the outcome we desire.


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