The value of a metaphor is that it provides a safe way for coworkers to discuss the undiscussable. Individuals do not have to accept the whole metaphor as truth. Each person can accept those parts that have meaning for her or him. For most people, getting the story straight does not matter. What does matter is that they are contributing to the story in a meaningful way.
Working with a metaphor can bring out “hidden” issues and provide antagonists with something concrete to discuss. The purpose is to create a story that will get people to tap into what is on everyone’s mind, but not yet on the table for discussion.
The following story is a great one to use when it is obvious that people are confused about their job roles and relationships. The setting and context can be changed to suit the situation, but essentially it goes like this:
A fellow was waiting for a bus one day near the city park. While he sat there a city truck drove up onto the grass and stopped. Two workers, wearing hard-hats and orange coveralls got out and began to mark off the area with wooden stakes and yellow string. Once the stakes had been placed, one of the men went back to the truck and took out a shovel. He went to the first stake and began to dig a hole. The hole was about two feet in diameter and about two feet deep.
When the first hole was finished, the second man went to the truck and took out another shovel. He went directly to the freshly dug hole and put all the dirt back in it. He patted it flat with his shovel and then moved on to the second hole which the first man had just finished digging. Again, the second worker put all the dirt back in the second hole.
The citizen was watching this and wondering what in the world they were doing. Finally, he could stand it no longer. He crossed the street and walked up the first worker who was digging hole number four. “Excuse me,” he said. “I’ve been watching you two digging up holes and then filling them in again. As a tax payer I demand to know what you are doing.” The first worker stopped, leaned on his shovel, and addressed the irate citizen thusly. “Well,” he offered, “I can explain. You see we usually work with a guy named Mike who brings the trees. He called in sick today. So, Ted and I decided that we shouldn’t stop working just because Mike’s not coming in.”
People respond in several ways: some laugh, others moan. Seldom do people sit silently. That exception occurred with a group of first line supervisors who just sat there when the story was finished. First thought was they did not get it. Then a soft, sad voice from the back of the room offered up this reflection. “The trouble with this place is that someone has dumped a truck load of trees on own lawn and we don’t have any shovels.”
This new slant on the tree story brought them into focus. After that, they were able to identify the specific issues they could do something about. Now, what they had previously considered as insurmountable problems, were within reach of resolution. They were amazed to discover how much they had in common. Shortly after adopting the “no shovels” metaphor, they developed a mantra-like mission statement: “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.” Meaning that whatever changes were needed it would be up to them to make them work.