Use Symbolic Language

Use Symbolic Language

When registered nurse Janet (McTavish) MacIntyre assumed the role of the new unit leader for the Intensive Care Unit/Cardiac Care Unit (ICU/CCU) at the Henderson Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario, she had a chance to share with others her intense passion for nursing, along with her extensive knowledge and accomplished skills.11 The Hamilton Health Sciences at Henderson site was opening a new state-of-the-art hospital renamed the Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre, and Janet wanted to fully engage her colleagues in that exciting opportunity. She found some compelling ways to do that by turning to Canadian culture. “I began by creating a logo with a slogan and choosing a mascot, one that identified with our Canadian roots and symbolized the journey we were on. An Inukshuk, built by the Inuit Natives across the Canadian Arctic, is a stone landmark that denotes a spiritual resting place along a migra- tion route to food or shelter. Most importantly, it communicates that ‘you are on the path.’ That was us. We were on a path. We were on a journey.”

The Inukshuk mascot was built with six stones: four represent- ing the organization’s corporate values of respect, caring, innovation, and accountability; and two reflecting the ICU/CCU’s values. A “passport” served as a creative education tool for getting everyone engaged—115 staff members in all, from nurses and respiratory therapists to business clerks and environmental aides. With so many

142 T










G E diverse learning needs for the various disciplines, the passport pro-

vided a customized checklist, a site map, and information that iden- tified a path to working safely in the new environment. A mock patient setup room, called the “sandbox,” gave the staff plenty of time to “play” (and practice, hands-on) with the new technology and equipment, and lessen the anxiety on moving day.

The Inukshuk mascot, the passport, the map, and the sandbox were all ways that Janet brought the vision to life through evocative metaphors and symbols. Leaders like Janet embrace the power of symbolic language like this to communicate a shared identity and give life to visions. They use metaphors and analogies; they give examples, tell stories, and relate anecdotes; they draw word pictures; and they offer quotations and recite slogans. They enable constitu- ents to picture the possibilities—to hear them, to sense them, to recognize them.

James Geary, a leading expert on the use of metaphorical language, found in his studies that people use a metaphor every ten to twenty-five words, or about six metaphors a minute.12 Meta- phors are everywhere—there are art metaphors, game and sports metaphors, war metaphors, science fiction metaphors, machine metaphors, and religious or spiritual metaphors. They influence what we think, what we invent, what we eat and drink, how we think, whom we vote for, and what we buy. Your ability to enlist others in a common vision of the future will be greatly enhanced by learning to use these figures of speech.

Consider, for example, the intriguing impact of language on participants in experiments in which they were told that they were either playing the Community Game or the Wall Street Game.13 People played exactly the same game by exactly the same rules; the only difference was that experimenters gave the game two different

143 E






names. Of those playing the Community Game, 70 percent started out playing cooperatively and continued to do so throughout. Of those told they were playing the Wall Street Game, just the opposite occurred: 70 percent did not cooperate, and the 30 percent who did, stopped when they saw that others weren’t cooperating. Again, remember: the name, not the game was the only thing that was different!

You can influence people’s behavior simply by giving the task or the team a name that evokes the kind of behavior implied by the name. If you want people to act like a community, use language that evokes a feeling of community. If you want them to act like traders in the financial markets, use language that cues those images. The same goes for any other vision you might have for your organization. This experiment powerfully demonstrates why you must pay close attention to the language you choose and the lan- guage you use.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *