THE BLOG
12/17/2012 01:26 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Choose Your Words, Choose Your Future

The funny thing about the whole fiscal cliff scenario is that we're surprised about how paralyzed our system is. It's like our whole country is shaking its head as we watch a car driven by Barack Obama and John Boehner careen toward the cliff with Harry Reid and Ben Bernanke riding shotgun. Only it's an SUV. With dark windows. And we're all in a giant circus trailer attached to the back. Which on second thought makes it just slightly less amusing.

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But why are we surprised? What would be going on in your head if you were in a car streaking toward a precipice at 80 mph? Would you be thinking clearly and making wise long-term decisions? No, you'd be messing your pants and gripped by panic.

Words matter. More precisely, metaphors matter. Metaphors are word pictures and pictures always carry more freight than mere words.

While leaders have many sources of power and influence, few compare to the power of the metaphors they use. Why? Like it or not, and whether you're aware of it or not, metaphors shape the thinking and feelings of everyone they touch. Take two families of metaphor you've no doubt heard:

  • War metaphors - We've had wars on drugs, terror, and most recently a purported war on unions in Michigan. War metaphors work great when there's a clear good guy and a clear bad guy - and when you can actually envision the day when your enemy is crushed and peace breaks out. If you're not in that situation, well... wars just go on and on until people get disillusioned and give up.
  • Fear metaphors - Images like a fiscal cliff are clearly designed to do one thing: freak people out. Fear is a fabulous way to get people moving. Unfortunately, moving can look like a stampede of panicked cattle. That's better than letting the herd stand still and get slaughtered, but it's hard to create order from fear. Plus, when's the last time you made an intelligent, long-term decision when gripped by panic? I'm guessing your intelligible thoughts could best be summed up by "HOLY @%!^#!!!!!!" Worse yet, those who get used to living in cultures driven by fear often have a hard time functioning when the impending disaster passes. They stand around wondering what to do and sometimes look for ways to start the next fire to fight.
Lest we cynically laugh at politicians and just wish they would get their act together (which I, for one, totally wish they would), we need to look in the mirror. Leaders at all organizational levels shape the thinking, feeling, and discussion about issues every day by the metaphors they choose.
  • When we say, "The East Region smoked the West Region. That was a blow-out - it wasn't even close!" we're setting up an internally competitive metaphor. That may spur both regions to greater performance, but don't be shocked when their leaders don't share best practices and the company suffers as a whole.
  • When a senior leader says, "I think we should cut that guy loose. He dropped the ball," after a normally dependable employee delivers a poor performance, she's setting up a perfectionist metaphor. Of course she needs to deliver corrective feedback, especially when there's a pattern of missteps. But the perfectionist leader shouldn't be surprised when her people spend as much time covering their rears as doing great work. Oh, and please don't expect innovation in this organization. Who would take the risk of a failure when one mistake gets you shown the door?
  • When we say, "We're a family around here," we're trying to set up a friendly, supportive environment. While some of you may find this ironic given what the holiday season brings out in your family, we shouldn't be surprised when people react with shock and horror at the decision to let someone go for performance or cost cutting reasons. While we might want to fire Uncle Ralph from the family, it's taboo in our culture. You put up with Uncle Ralph unless he does something unspeakable.

I can hear some of you thinking, "Hey, it's only words." Don't be deceived. Words matter because they reveal something deeper and predict something broader. In the words of The Iron Lady:

  • Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
  • Watch your words, for they become actions.
  • Watch your actions, for they become habits.
  • Watch your habits, for they become your character.
  • Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
  • What we think, we become.

So take a look at the metaphors you and other leaders use in your organization:

  • What pervasive word pictures do you use regularly? Pay special attention to the ones that have caught on and gone viral in your organization.
  • What actions and habits are those pictures reinforcing? Is that what you really want?
  • What idea lurks behind your word pictures? If you want different actions and habits, do the ideas need to be tweaked or radically re-thought? Are the ideas both true and useful?

Words matter. They reveal the ideas behind them and they shape the environment for wide-ranging behaviors.

I'd say more, but I'm too freaked out about plunging off the cliff.