Does Your Team Talk in Metaphors?

One of my favorite things to do for companies is to help them understand what distinguishes high performers from average and/or low performers in their organization. The purpose of this could be for a variety of reasons, but oftentimes, it is to help companies create a profile and tools to select the right talent.

We ask the clients to provide us with the opportunity to talk to high, mid and low performers.  We ask them a series of job analysis questions and watch them work for a bit.  While we watch them work, we ask them questions about what they are doing, why they are doing it and ask them to explain what is going on in their head to understand what mental processes they are engaging in to complete their work.

Recently, we’ve been working on this type of project for a client.  And we’ve uncovered one of the most interesting things I think I’ve seen so far in doing this kind of work.

Overwhelmingly, the high performers talk in metaphors.  They explain things, often complex things, through metaphors instead of direct or literal language.

For example: “So, when we do this, it is like we are headed out on a trip from here to Nashville, and we decide half way through that we need to change our tires and our oil.”  This was used to explain how poor planning hurts the company.

Another way this came out was high performers using song lyrics to describe what they were doing, how they were doing it, or why.

In this particular example as well as in other workplaces, people who talk in metaphors seem to be better teachers. (Think Jesus, arguably, regardless of your religion, one of the best teachers ever.  How did he usually talk to his followers?  In parables, which is simply another word for metaphor.)

Metaphors help us:

  1. Make more than one point with less language. There is often the points and THE POINT that can only be expressed through metaphors instead of specific or descriptive dialogue.
  2. Describe often complex things in simple terms.
  3. Commit things to memory. We remember the song lyrices or the analogy more than we remember the work instructions.

In this instance, the behavior of talking in metaphors will be related to the overall competency of teaching.  Teaching will be one of three to four competencies we will design selection criteria and assessment around for this client.  The ability to teach in order share knowledge across employees is a critical competitive advantage for this organization.

So how can we assess for teaching ability?  Well one way is to see if candidates talk in metaphors. Do candidates engage in the behavior that the high performers use?

To do this we will train hiring managers to pay attention to these things:

  1. In interviews, using “tell me about a time” questions, does the candidate explain things or answer the questions and use metaphors to describe?
  2. In interviews, ask them to explain the last time they described how to solve a problem to someone. Ask them to actually walk through the description.  Are metaphors or analogies present?
  3. In a work sample, we will ask candidates to teach someone how to do something. We will score this work sample, among other things, to see whether using metaphors was present.

Another way to look at metaphors is to more broadly see if people tell stories to explain things instead of simply describing what is.   Assess if storytelling is present in your candidates.

Is your workplace full of metaphors?  If so, your organization may be better at teaching than others.




Mary Ila Ward

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