Locked in your worldview? How language influences culture and change

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Brief summary of the article

  1. Machinery errors are often reported and perceived as a problem of machinery.
  2. By framing machinery as the cause of its own failure we are trapped in our worldview (culture).
  3. All language is metaphorical i.e., culturally situated and unless we understand the hidden biases in our language, we will remain trapped in our worldview i.e., machinery is the cause of its own failure.
  4. Metaphors are not just words, they also represent our bodily language (gestures, habits, and heuristics).
  5. Metaphors (and our body language) originate from our unconscious mind.
  6. The strongest indicator of organisational change is felt at the unconscious level and often expressed through our metaphors including body language.

How often do you think about how you think and how you speak out your mind? If you think language is a thoughtful, rational, analytical, calculative exercise and words have a literal meaning, don’t go further to read this post. But if you want to explore how language – a unique ability of humans to articulate their thoughts – can tell us something about our unconscious mind and culture you may wish to read further.

For some years, I have been studying the relationship between language and culture in organisational communication. Here are a few common phrases that I took from the engineering world:

Managing critical equipment has become our single biggest challenge.

Breakdowns are running at peak this summer.

Those switchboards have become a nightmare for us.

The breaker switch tripped off without much warning.

The engine alarms kept us up all night.

The fire pump seized during operation.

The valve refused to open during ballasting.

Corrosion is attacking the tank structure.

Corrosion is eating up the deck surface.

The fire detector is giving false alarms.

That pressure gauge cannot be trusted.

It’s the machinery’s fault.

We speak of machines as if they were living beings. Why do we do that? Why do we have to humanise non-human stuff? Does it matter that we speak about mechanical equipment in one way or another? What does this tell us about our culture (worldview)? Is there a relationship between the way we speak and our culture? And can we really understand and influence culture by studying our language? These are questions I aim to explore in this paper. I admit I am no expert, and so, I would love to hear from you the reader where we may disagree.

Personification of machinery

Having an explanatory framework for machinery errors in the same way as we explain away human error gives us a coherent view of the world. It is an existential need to seek stability and certainty in an uncertain world. What would be my role if I cannot manage those machines that I am responsible for? Even when we know that machines are not isolated from the wider physical, social, and market context, speaking of tanks, gauges, motors, pumps, valves, and corrosion as we speak of humans puts us back in control.

In our study of almost 31,000 reports, I have observed reporting systems replete with machinery breakdowns, malfunctions, and failures as if machinery is the cause for its own failure. But when I spend time with people to understand their views, what I often see is the moral tendency to report a problem (and get it off the shoulder) in the absence of effective support from the leadership. Reporting machinery as a problem in its own becomes a pragmatic solution to deeper, organisational problems and is often the sign of a toxic culture.

Circular causality

If the end goal is to manage the machines effectively what is wrong with thinking and speaking about machines as we speak of humans? The problem is that we are trapped in a circular causality. All our actions become the (machinery management) system’s way of understanding our behaviour and the system’s output and analysis becomes our way of perceiving and speaking about machinery. By analysing how we report machinery errors, the system starts to work out what data we collect. And at the same time, system generated reports start to dictate what data we should be collecting. When a ‘valve refuses to open’ or ‘corrosion starts to eat up the tank’ the system starts to recognize the valve or the tank as a problem per se and pushes us to become even more accurate (and detailed) in reading and reporting the torque in the valve or the extent of corrosion in the tank. If the relationship between the data that we collect and the results we obtain is a healthy one, we are on a path towards continuous improvement. But when we experience recurring patterns in machinery breakdowns and failures it means that we are caught up in a spiral of circular causality. At this point, it is important to step back and observe how we report machinery errors. But we hardly do so and to make it worse, we even call it ‘machine learning’ thereby reinforcing algorithmic bias at an unimaginable scale. Learning is stagnated when our language is locked in a worldview.

All language is metaphorical

Our first reaction to look for meanings of words is to refer to a dictionary, but word meanings are not literal, and therefore a dictionary is of little use. Meaning making is situated in culture and word meanings must be understood metaphorically. Metaphors are words and phrases taken from one concept and applied to another.

Metaphors provide an insight into how far we can push our imagination. When I enrolled in a PhD program at Cardiff University, there was a professor who had a world map outside his office with the North facing down. I asked him, “Peter, don’t you think there’s something’s wrong with this map?” Peter smiled and said, “don’t tell me you really believe that the North should face up, do you?” The man knew metaphorical trapping!

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As a mariner I have used maps in all possible modes – North up, Course up, Head up. But it never occurred to me that even something as straightforward as time and space is metaphorical. Time flows, time stands still, time waits for none, Christmas is approaching (from where?), COVID has gone (really, and where?), the right time and the wrong time, time is money, time is precious – these are all metaphors of time viewed differently using cultural expressions.

You can pick any human value and you will begin to observe its metaphorical meanings. Politics, morality, justice, freedom, democracy, human rights, nepotism, corruption, righteousness and so on. When the Conservatives speak of ‘family’ they follow the ‘Strict Father Model’. They use phrases like ‘father protects the family’; ‘father’s authority’, ‘strict rules’ ‘enforce the rules’, ‘self-discipline’ and ‘self-reliance’. The Liberals, on the other hand, follows the ‘Nurturant Parent model’ and their words include the language of ‘love’, ‘empathy’, and ‘respect’. The two of us could be fighting over the right family values between us and you may be thinking why I am so far off from your world.

Metaphors go beyond spoken words

Not only do we speak the way we visualise the world, our gestures, habits, heuristics, and rituals follow our words. Even the most basic feelings expressed in words are accompanied by corresponding gestures – I feel down, I feel on top of the world, I am a small man (often used to denote one’s hierarchy and social status in some cultures), this seems OK to me (the threshold of our imagination), I am under pressure, I am so full, or I feel hollow. We don’t just speak metaphorically; we also think, act, and live by our metaphors. When you want to know if a person is speaking the truth or not, it helps to observe if their body language aligns with their words.

Metaphors limit the boundaries for how far we can stretch our imagination. If your maintenance team speaks about machinery as a naughty human that needs to be kept in check, that means their imagination is informed by their metaphors. Because metaphors operate in the unconscious, there is very little to gain from pushing people to think differently or sending them on to a training course when machinery errors are hurting the organisation (watch the metaphors!). Feeding people with more information, as we do in training, will do more harm than any good unless the trainer is a learner. If we want to be understood, we must learn to engage with people, listen to their feelings, the inner conflicts, and doubts in their expressions, and observe their gestures, habits, heuristics, and rituals to understand their unconscious mind. We need to learn with others and not train the other.

One Brain Three Minds®

Last autumn, I visited a primary school in Aberdeen. I was keen to explore how young children would perceive the term ‘learning’. A lot of children, even at the early age of 8-12, responded with expressions such as ‘expanding your knowledge’; ‘getting a bigger brain’, ‘putting information in the brain’.

It was a powerful insight into how education is largely perceived as a brain centric exercise from a very young age. We grow up with the mindset that brain is the control tower of our body, and we are convinced that by taming and training the brain will fix all our problems. Most change programs make the same mistake by confusing training with learning as those young children spoke and felt in the school. Focus on the brain and change their behaviour. We use all sorts of fancy terms such as non-technical skills, behavioural skills, soft skills, and social skills based on the assumption that the brain is the control tower of the body.

But none of our theories take the unconscious mind seriously and we certainly don’t envision how the unconscious communicates to us through metaphors, symbols, habits, gestures, heuristics, and rituals. I remember once visiting a ship where a renowned company had introduced a fancy phrase ‘operational excellence’ and despite many posters and images around the ship to magnify the glory of both operations and excellence no one had a clue of what this meant. That does not surprise me. When the objective is to flood the brain with information, there is little hope for change.

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Any attempt to influence culture begins with understanding and demystifying the role of brain in human body. The brain is not a passive sensory filter in a privileged position (on our head) receiving information and acting upon it. The brain lives in the body and it is through the sensory organs in our body that we give name to our feelings. In fact, when we are fully attuned with the external environment the brain is not even involved in decision making because our body takes over all the decisions and actions. Singing, dancing, and most of our creative capacities flow from deeper regions of the unconscious. In Social Psychology of Risk, we refer to this as One Brain Three Minds®  – the Brain Mind, the Heart Mind, and the Gut Mind.

Overcoming our biases

If the aim is to stretch (not change) the imagination of a team of engineers, the first step is to know the limits of their imagination. My ten years old daughter tells me that the first two words that come to her mind when I say ‘reliability’ are trust and being reliable. When we build on this metaphor we end up with a different lexicon (list) of words – observing, listening, helping, sharing knowledge, credibility, expertise, resilience, relationship, and fallibility. It is not as if those words are not known to the engineering team. It is just that they have become buried in their unconscious, never triggered by the term ‘reliability’ and hence remain outside the reach of their imagination.

Our role is not to flood people with more information, but to surface the feelings that follow their emotions (Heart Mind) and instincts (Gut Mind). When we can think and speak of machines and reliability in more than one way, our habits, heuristics, rituals, and observation styles will begin to follow. The purpose of the rational mind is not to supress our feelings and tame our behaviour but to pay close attention to the bodily feelings and learn from those feelings. That takes reflection and mindfulness. That is why we sleep over a problem and wake up with a solution or get innovative ideas when we travel places during holidays. It is also during conversations with people who can listen to us and our feelings that we connect with our unconscious mind.

This subtle difference about how we understand feelings has serious consequences for organisations. We can either continue to reinforce what we already know by supressing our feelings or we can learn to enrich our memory and life experiences and become better at planning and anticipating what lies ahead by listening to our feelings. More specifically, every machinery failure will give us something richer and more refreshing insights and help us to overcome our biases. But as we will see in the next section, thinking, reflection and giving a name to our feelings is only the starting point to influence culture.

All learning is movement

In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge describes it eloquently through his own life example:

“Peter Senge has got it all wrong, people don’t have time to sit around talking.’ I don’t really agree with that. What we don’t have time for is reflection for its own sake. Reflection that [isn’t] connected to action is what [makes] people think they don’t have time for this.”(p. 288).

‘I feel bored’, ‘it’s boring just sitting there watching those training videos’, ‘we are not moving’, and even the term ‘corrective and preventive actions’ – these are common phrases to illustrate that learning is about movement and action. Most change programs fail because leaders do not walk the talk or provide opportunities for action. For many years, I have myself been guilty of ‘thought provoking talks’ leaving audiences with no more than just food for thought. We are stimulated by thought provoking ideas, we would like to be challenged, and we all need inspiration but without movement there can be no change. In fact, a phrase often used is ‘learning is change’ except that we are not sure what that change means.

Because we are embodied beings, change must be felt at the level of our body. Think about it. There is very little our body can do without moving apart from secretion. It is precisely why it is so important to monitor our movement (gestures, habits, heuristics, and bodily sensations) as an indicator of change. If we are caught up in the same metaphors, there is little bodily change. The unconscious communicates through emotional and instinctive language that is mostly expressed through our bodies – goosebumps on our arms, butterflies in our stomach, sweat on our palms, subtle expressions on our face and the list goes on. The funny thing is that we can feel in our bodies when the culture is changing even without looking at the dashboards and traffic lights, but we may not trust the dashboard if our body feels otherwise. Learning is all about connecting reflection with action.

Surfacing the unconscious

Can you now see the problem with viewing machines as humans to be controlled and managed? It is as if we have blocked our vision, and our language, habits, heuristics, rituals, and routines have become slaves to our brain. Every breakdown, every machinery error reinforces the same metaphors and the same worldview and the silly machines, like the pesky humans, are subjected to more bureaucracy and control.

In the iCue engagement process, we learn to move beyond brain-centric models and focus on surfacing what is hidden in the unconscious mind (biases, myths, and assumptions). When we listen to our metaphors and pay closer attention to the mind-body relationship we bring new perspectives to existing problems and create opportunities for success.

About iCue®

iCue is a visual / semiotic method to understand how human beings make decisions. It is based on Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR). Using a whiteboard, iCue allows us to map, code and make sense of conversations by surfacing our personal and collective unconscious (biases and assumptions) and identifying trade-offs and choices in human decisions.

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iCue coaching is accompanied with a pocket guide, scenario cards and role play exercises that can be used to practice and improve our listening and observation skills. It can be used in a variety of situations including event analysis, team meetings, risk assessments, incident investigations and nearly all forms of human interactions. You can read all about iCue here.


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