Ask the expert: How metaphors influence culture

Many organisations commonly use the word ‘steering committee’ or ‘steering group’ without realising the power of language, metaphors, the unconscious mind, and culture.

‘Steering’ means giving direction, knowing where we are, and where we are headed, and being in authority and control. ‘Steering’ is associated with vehicles (cars, buses, ships etc.). A steering committee or a steering group would mean a select few people who are allowed to steer; they are the drivers.

This is not a wordplay. It gives an insight into how far we can push our imagination in understanding and applying concepts. The use of the term ‘steering committee’ shows that our view of an organisation is limited to:

1. a car, bus, or a mechanical moving system
2. people, processes, and equipment are the components in the system
3. the organisation is moving in a direction
4. the direction is both known to and decided by the driver (steering committee)
5. the driver is aware of the position (current state of affairs)
6. it is only the driver who gets to watch, observe, think and drive
7. everyone else is welcome to sit in, join, watch, yawn, and even sleep as long as they don’t distract the driver (meetings?)
8. it is not only impolite but also dangerous to question the driver when it gets busy (no dissent or questioning during meetings)

What is remarkable about these metaphors is not how many different perspectives we can collect about a ‘steering committee’ but how a handful of metaphors have constrained our worldview.

Result. A toxic culture we create when self-proclaimed experts are never challenged for their decisions and actions; meetings and gatherings are all about telling and selling ideas; people rarely see the point in challenging ‘experts’ for their ideas; concentration of power becomes limited to selective few, and meritocracy and critical thinking is replaced with autocracy and dumbness.

If this is a group of people responsible for implementing change because of their domain expertise, how does the label ‘steering committee’ help them to learn and grow?

Because metaphors operate at an unconscious level, many of these problems can go unnoticed for decades.

I would welcome your thoughts. Disagreements are very welcome.

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