Written by
Simon Lancaster

Published
08 Oct 2015

Rage against the machine

08 Oct 2015 • by Simon Lancaster

The metaphor of HR

I grew up in the mid-80s when big budget action movies were all the rage. You remember? Robocop. Terminator. Tron. The plots were all slightly different but they all addressed the same basic theme: man’s perennial struggle against machinery.

It’s a struggle that, as a speechwriter, I feel I’m still fighting today. But instead of facing Arnie, I’m up against the whole business community. And instead of using M16s, I’m using words. And, no matter what I do, this is a machine that just keeps coming back… Over, over and over again.

Show me a change program that hasn't been 'driven', a reform initiative that hasn’t been 'accelerated', a company that hasn’t aspired to be 'firing on all cylinders'.

Business leaders talk about ‘leveraging’ values, ‘fueling growth' and ‘parking’ ideas. They tell their teams to ‘apply the brakes’, put on ‘turbo boosters’ and even ‘change gear.’ When things go wrong they ‘run out of steam’, ‘break down’ or have a ‘spanner in the works’.

The dominant metaphor in HR is the metaphor of the company as a machine, and more specifically the company as a car. But why?

Empower your people

Imagine if companies were cars and business leaders were drivers. They just have to get in, turn the key, put their foot down and va va voom, away they go! That’s nonsense of course, if only leadership was so easy. But the image plays to the desire of control and power. But the trues effects lie on the people – and frankly, it can be a car crash.

For, if the leader is the driver and the company is the car, then that reduces the people in it to no more than nuts and bolts. So, if they’re not there to innovate or create, but simply to fulfill a function, as soon as they fail to fulfill that function then, make no mistake, they will be replaced and disposed of instantly.

The metaphor might make those in charge feel more powerful, but it makes their people feel dejected, dispirited and depressed. Of course, they never say, ‘I didn’t like the metaphor’ but you see it in their language… A sarcastic murmur of ‘full steam ahead then’ or they might complain about feeling ‘ground down’. Of course they feel ground down: isn’t that just what happens to nuts and bolts in a big machine? They are following their leader’s image and it isn’t particularly flattering. 

Machine metaphors are natural articulations of things we don’t like. If you say you can see the ‘cogs whirring’ when someone’s thinking, you’re not being very polite. And god help your marriage if you say it’s just ‘ticking over’.

So what’s a better metaphor? Well, if machine metaphors are natural metaphors for things we don’t like, the natural metaphor for things we do love is personification. 

Humanise & personalise your strategy

Keen gardeners say their 'plants look thirsty', proud homeowners speak of 'their kitchen as the heart of the house' and an enthusiastic boozer might nip out for a 'cheeky pint'.

Personification metaphors communicate affection and intimacy. After all, what in the world is more loveable than a beautiful person? It is a truly universal metaphor. For, whilst not everyone understands what goes on beneath a car bonnet, the experience of humanity is one that is common to all of us.

So it’s instantly visible. And it has a deep effect on the brain. MRI scans show these metaphors light up the parts of the brain that machine metaphors put to sleep. If we talk about ‘grasping’ opportunities, the part of our brain that deals with grasping actually lights up. 

Personification in practice

That is why great leaders use personification metaphors. Barack Obama talks about the heart and soul of America. Richard Branson talks about the Virgin spirit. Steve Jobs talked about Apple’s DNA.

So take the time out to understand, what is the character of your company? What does your company see when you look out to the horizon? Where are you heading? What’s the climate like? What’s going to nourish you on your journey? What are the threats you might face along the way?

Thinking through these questions will lead to a whole new kind of language within your business, one that is far more appealing, attractive and effective: it’s the language of leadership.

Language thought and behavior are all interlinked. By changing the way you speak, you change the way people think and that changes the way people act. This will help your business thrive, not just survive.

It was always the human race that prevailed against the machine in those old 80s movies. Let’s hope human resources professionals can prevail against the machine today.

So, go for it, find your inner Sarah Connor! Let’s join together, rise up and rage against the machine…

You might also be interested in

Simon Lancaster's new book: Winning Minds 

Blending ancient rhetoric and neuroscience to create the definitive guide to the 'Language of Leadership'. Find out more here.

Adopting a new mindset

Machine metaphors are natural articulations of things we don’t like. If you say you can see the ‘cogs whirring’ when someone’s thinking, you’re not being very polite. And god help your marriage if you say it’s just ‘ticking over’.

So what’s a better metaphor? Well, if machine metaphors are natural metaphors for things we don’t like, the natural metaphor for things we do love is personification.