Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Metaphorically thinking

What is the purpose of a metaphor? A vivid figure of speech drawing comparisons between two things, a metaphor is typically used to aid our understanding of a complex concept. Yes, metaphors are tools we use to promote comprehension and add emotion to our descriptions. But are they more than that? Do the metaphors themselves actually shape how we perceive the world ... even when language isn't involved? Research summarized in the Boston Globe's article Thinking Literally indicates yes!

This article provides synopses of several psychology studies that reveal that metaphors shape our patterns of thought:
  • When participants filled out a questionnaire with a heavy or "weighty" clipboard in two studies, they considered questions more seriously and attributed more value to an unknown currency than those who held a light clipboard.
  • Subjects who held a warm cup of coffee versus a cup of iced coffee (not thinking it was part of the study) rated the personality of someone who was described to them as happier, more sociable, good natured, and more caring -- all "warmer" qualities. (Find a more in-depth look at this study here.)
These are fascinating insights that depict how the metaphors of our culture influence our subconscious processing. But when speaking cross-culturally, beware! Cultural interpretations of metaphors can vary greatly. An illustration: one Chinese friend gets such a kick out of the "angry burger" at Burger King. As an American, it's clear to me that the angry burger will be spicy as "anger" and "spicy" both indicate "heat". My friend, on the other hand, had no idea what it could possibly mean -- the metaphors in his culture did not connect the two. In sum, the results of the above research have implications for metaphor usage in a cross-cultural setting: we should now not only take caution with the metaphors we use in our language but also those we portray in our actions.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Key Connections

Just had to share this fun article on boosting creativity from Don The Idea Guy: Push Any Key For Creativity. What I particularly love about this is that it represents a fundamental tool in creative thinking -- connecting ideas. In this case, Don connects creative wisdom with a computer keyboard and produces a fab article. What everyday object can you muse upon to help you solve the challenge you're facing?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Preserving greatness

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." - John Muir, 1911

When John Muir explored the majestic Yosemite Valley, he was not only struck by its breathtaking beauty but also compelled to celebrate and preserve it. His activism eventually led Abraham Lincoln to sign an Act of Congress to safeguard the land for public use ... an action that paved the way for the establishment of our National Parks.

Thanks to Muir's environmental activism, my recent visit to the Yosemite Valley, was, indeed, awe inspiring and uplifting. His personal quest leads me to wonder if we are celebrating and seeking to maintain the beautiful and great things in our lives, organizations and world. Yes, there is a need to be nimble, to react quickly and effectively to change, to not hold on too tightly to things that keep us from moving forward. But on the reverse, there is a need to capture, protect and continuously rejoice over the amazing and awe-inspiring elements of our organizations. Does our inaction allow it to slip away? Perhaps in the name of progress or in response to global market shifts?

Moreover, Muir was keen to realize that simply protecting only the places of greatest beauty or majesty would not be sufficient for maintaining greatness. Without a complex ecosystem in place surrounding the Yosemite Valley, the picturesque sights would deteriorate. In our organizations, do we realize how little changes affect our cultures? Is our greatness slipping away, not because of big changes, but due to little ones? How can we build and maintain a healthy ecosystem, where our employees and our customers can be continuously motivated and inspired?

I am thankful that John Muir went to great lengths, even dedicated his life, to preserving the greatness of creation. Let his efforts inspire us as we stumble upon greatness in our worlds.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Metaphor on marriage

Was reading about the power of a metaphor and was inspired to create one of my own. Tyler and I celebrated our anniversary today - the day of our first date six years ago - because we were apart for our wedding anniversary. As part of my gift to him, took a stab at composing a metaphor (well, a simile really) that summed up my thoughts, feelings and emotions on our marriage.

"Our marriage is like a therapeutic massage ... there may be a few 'ouch' moments, but as we work through them it leaves me feeling delightfully warm, tingly and content."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Yet another reason half-right is the new perfect

Freedom. That's what I felt when I read today's HBR article, "How to Escape Perfectionism". Not only is perfectionism as a consultant a hindrance to organizational effectiveness, but this article reveals it's a hindrance to your own productivity. Iceland, as a culture that does not stigmatize failure,  is ranked the happiest place on earth and is one of the most productive - with more artists per capita than any other country. If Icelanders pursue activities they're not initially good at, failure doesn't hinder them from moving forward and building competence.

Reflecting on my upbringing in the States, this leaves me wondering how often I hold back because I know I won't be perfect. How often the fear of being laughed at inhibits me. What experiences have I missed out on because I was too afraid to try?

And it also leads me to think about what attitudes we're encouraging in the workplaces. Is your company culture one that leads to fear-avoidance -- where it's easier for employees to just do nothing than to risk failure. Are your numerous assessment tools, e.g. performance reviews, 360 evaluations, personality assessment, etc., that point out performance weaknesses balanced with rewards for taking on new projects to build competencies. Is failure embraced as part of the learning and growing process or is it means for removal?

In his book Management Rewired, Charles Jacobs relates the latest findings in neuroscience research to the leadership/management field. One key message is that critical performance feedback typically serves to undermine performance improvement. At best, employees will dismiss it. At worst, they will become disengaged. I suspect that this is not so much attributed to the fact that people think they're already perfect, but that they're put off by the connotation of failure implicit in critical feedback.   Jacobs argues that allowing employees to own their own development plans, to self-assess their improvements and competencies and to take charge of their own learning will produce much better results. And the folks in Iceland are proof that it works!

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