Explaining organisational culture with metaphors and analogies

8 September, 2018
Explaining organisational culture is difficult. This method of using analogies, metaphors and similes ease the conversation, and speeds new employees as team players.

Induction tips to help new employees become productive team players faster

Explaining organisational culture and navigating its complex dynamics can be difficult for new starters. It can also be a hard task for managers too. How do you describe why you do things the way you do?

A communication strategy that we find helps in explaining organisational culture is to employ figurative language. In this article, you will find a few examples of how using analogies, metaphors and similes can be used when explaining organisational culture to new employees. These techniques will help to drive conversations to transform cultural complexities into identifiable and understandable concepts, and, in turn, help to immerse a new employee into their role as a team player faster.


Why is explaining organisational culture so difficult?

Perhaps it is best to begin with an analogy to show why explaining organisational culture is both difficult and essential. Organisational culture, you see, is like an iceberg: only around 10% of it is visible. The remainder is hiding under the surface.

The piece that is in plain sight includes values, strategies, vision, procedures, and policies. These elements are all clear and easily understood. You work with them every day. They may be included in instruction manuals, company handbooks, and mission statements.

However, it’s the larger part under the surface that really drives the iceberg. This is what underpins the visible part. This is the unwritten cultural dynamic; the values, perceptions, traditions, beliefs and shared assumptions that seasoned employees instinctively abide by.


Explaining organisational culture by the tourist simile

Often, existing employees will be too polite to correct the actions of new starters. Therefore, it is important to induct new employees into your organisational culture.

Explain that new employees are like tourists in many ways. They are in a new country, with cultural elements that are alien to them. They will make mistakes, but these will often be forgiven by the locals because the tourist is trying to assimilate.

By accepting that new employees will act in ways that are alien to the organisational culture, you are enabling the new employee to be at ease to address the dynamic of the culture without fear of seeming foolish.


Explaining organisational culture by analogies to nature

A salesperson I knew started a new job in a new firm, and he quickly found that his biggest challenge would be adapting to the new culture. In his previous firm, what the boss said was what happened. In this new company, meetings seemed to be raucous affairs full of conflict. When he questioned his new boss about this, she told him that she had taken a leaf out of Steve Jobs’ book. He often told the following story:

When he was young, Jobs had become friendly with an old widower. One day, the old man invited the young Jobs to witness something. It was a lesson he was never to forget.

Jobs went to the old man’s garage, where the old man pulled out a rusty old rock tumbler. Together, the man and boy gathered some stones from the yard. The old man placed them in the tumbler with a little liquid and some powder, and then set it to work. It chugged and rattled, and he told Jobs to return the following day.

Bright and early, Jobs showed up at the old man’s garage. The old man opened the tumbler and poured out the rocks. They were now clean, shiny, and beautiful. The old man explained that by the rocks rubbing together, creating a little friction, and a fair amount of noise, they had taken on a new, highly polished form. All he had to supply was the environment (the tumbler) and a little facilitation (the liquid and powder) to help the process along.


Explaining organisational culture as ‘more like’ and ‘less like’

When moving from one company to another, the cultural shift can be quite dramatic. The way of doing things and the acceptable way of communicating can be very marked.

Modern organisations tend to have a much flatter hierarchy, and this can be alien to those who are used to a more autocratic structure. When explaining organisational culture and how it translates to communication and behaviour, you may find it useful to use a ‘more like and less like’ approach. For example, be:

  • More like peanut butter and less like poison
  • More like a coach and less like a manager
  • More like a counsellor and less like a traffic warden (apologies to traffic wardens!)

You may even find that some of the metaphorical language sticks. For example, A colleague may say to another “Who made you a traffic warden?” if behaviour is inappropriate.


Explaining organisational culture as other worlds or businesses

The father of the moving assembly line is generally accepted to be Henry Ford. However, he had to be persuaded as to the technique, which was actually already employed in an altogether different industry. The story is an apt demonstration of how you can use analogies from other businesses (or other worlds) when explaining organisational culture change required to adapt working practices.

Ford had always believed in the power of producing more cars and selling them more cheaply. Until 1913, Ford’s motor cars were assembled in situ: parts were brought to the cars and assembled one at a time. One of Ford’s employees, Bill Klan, had spent time in meat packing plants in Chicago. He believed that its working practices would transform Ford’s production numbers.

In the meat processing plants, cows were slaughtered, dressed, and packed in sequence, by transporting the cow to the worker on a trolley. Klann told Henry Ford that the Model T was like an old cow, but instead of being dismantled, it was being put together.

Ford decided to give the process a trial. A production line was created to build magnetos. Instead of one worker assembling the whole magnet, the process was divided among 29 workers with a conveyor belt moving the magneto from one stage to the subsequent stage. Assembly time dropped from 20 minutes to less than five. So was born the moving production line.

These are just a few of the communication techniques we employ when creating and reinvigorating staff induction processes for clients, as we did for Mercer. Our Learning Map provides a visual representation of your organisation and enables starters to see how they fit in . The method then evolves from a broadcast approach to a two-way induction process that empowers interaction, discovery and conversation.

Get in touch with The Big Picture People today, to find out how our Learning Map approach can reinvigorate your induction process, and onboard your new starters faster by better explaining organisational culture.

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