If Insight is the Engine, then Metaphor is the Petrol

Ben Zelinskas

After a long pause, the mid-level manager leaned in and said, “Everyday, we shake the tree too much…You must plant the seed, nourish it and provide the right sunlight for the tree to grow. You must then let it flower and be unselfish in harvesting its fruit…And currently we shake the tree too much. We are too urgent and we are running out of fruit.”

I was conducting a 1-on-1 interview with an employee from a multinational technology firm. At the time, the firm was trying to restart a stalled internal transformation effort, and I had asked him, “Using a metaphor, answer the following question. Life at (unnamed tech-firm) is like ________?”

The beauty of this exchange is the question. It evokes feelings that bypass critical thinking, and nudges the interviewee to answer with a metaphor. In describing the metaphor, the employee uses more vivid language and communicates an emotional response—something not achievable with a Likert Scale or other traditional surveys methods. 

It’s why this question and questions similar to it are so powerful.

Emotionally-driven responses provide a richer set of data. It’s from this data that valuable insights can be mined—insights that help build compelling and relevant campaigns that incite individual and collective employee participation.

This has never been more important than it is in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world. As leaders look to rebrand or pivot externally, they must model the way forward internally—help employees understand how to live the change every day, and meaningfully connect it to them. This connection requires insight, and sometimes metaphor is the best tool for coaxing that insight to the surface. 

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