We tell ourselves and others stories every day. Many of us are increasingly aware of the inherent belief systems that stand behind our stories; less known is the hidden power that’s embedded inside the individual words we use.
We forget the powerful creative power words have. The way we use every day words has become as invisible to us as the air we breathe; it’s there but we hardly notice it. This ‘not noticing’ is a key factor when it comes to our culture — maintaining the status quo depends upon you and I not noticing.
As an example, here’s a list of words and phrases we use on a regular basis when describing our business activities:
Belonging to the company
Fight off the competition
The battle for market share
Winning new customers
Combating falling sales
Chief Executive Officer
Captains of industry
Bullet point lists
Our language bristles with it: the metaphor of war. And it seems like an apt enough analogy for business, after all, it’s a minefield out there and we’re all fighting for survival, right? The metaphor of war helps us think and talk about our businesses in terms we already understand and that are deeply entrenched in our culture. Look around and you’ll see most businesses are built on military concepts such as top down decision-making, hierarchical chains of command, suits and uniforms, having headquarters.
So what of it?
Only this. Ask yourself if the metaphor of war is simply describing what’s already there, or if the metaphor is creating and perpetuating the reality?
There can be no war without dehumanising its participants; both the soldiers and the opponents. Seeing the world through the lens of warfare leads inevitably to a polarised way of thinking about human beings: ‘us and them’. It’s reflected in our business world too: management vs employees, us against the competition, the constant fight for market share.
Perhaps the most insidious war-mongering happens inside our own heads. When we describe ourselves as struggling to lose weight, or battling to find time, when we attack ourselves for not being good enough, or achieving enough, when we get defensive about our failures, we wage war on the self and treat our own selves like the enemy.
Every day, we gird our loins, go out into the fray and do battle, kick ass, win the day. War is by nature divisive. It takes tremendous energy to keep things separate:
my brand, my territory, my customers, my IP. No wonder entrepreneurs and corporate employees alike feel so exhausted and stressed. We're constantly at war! We spend a lot of time comparing ourselves, eyeing the competition, checking out their strategies and tactics. It's not that these are inherently negative ways to use our energy. Sometimes, it can be prudent and smart. It's that the life-is-war, win/lose model is a zero-sum game - one we align ourselves to, time and time again - that depletes us in the end. We're so used to it, we can't imagine anything different. We say 'well, that's human nature' and leave it at that.
If you’re bothered that the way you speak about your business helps contribute to an embattled worldview where your competitors are the enemy and customers are reduced to targets for your latest sales campaign, it’s a fascinating exercise to start paying attention to the language you use in your every-day life. I’ve made a personal commitment to deliberately rephrase whenever I catch myself using war metaphors. Just doing that has slowed me down and made me more aware of what I’m really communicating and aligning myself with.
My sense is that as I change my language, a different as yet unthought of level of reality becomes possible.
There are so many other metaphors we can use to describe our working worlds; metaphors that invite collaboration and stewardship. Agriculture springs to mind: we have branch offices, reap the benefits of low-hanging fruit using seed capital to grow our organisations as they blossom and thrive. And by the way, what field do you work in? (Strawberry? Energy?)
The point is, we have a choice about the underlying stories that invisibly power our lives. Awareness comes first though - what worldview drives your thinking?
I’m so happy to have discovered the following people who have given impetus to my thinking on this topic. Highly recommended reading.