One year ago, “Scientific American Mind” published an article claiming that “How we characterize an issue affects how we think about it!” The authors analyzed the Bush administration’s choice of words in response to 9/11 events.
For the authors, the words and metaphors that were used, determined the strategic response the US administration. They compared the response suggested by these words with those that could have been generated by a different characterization.
“War on Terror” (the terminology chosen by the Bush administration) implies:
- Threat perceived as global and coming from another nation, ethnic group, religious confession, race etc…
- National unity, no dissent tolerated (unpatriotic)
- Military solution, the President as commander in chief, Restriction on civil liberties accepted, Torture tolerated, “Collateral damages” unavoidable
The strategic consequences of this “social construct of reality” were disastrous:
- Combating terrorist violence by state violence alienates population
- Military warfare is counterproductive in fighting an ideology
- Al Qaeda is an organic body, not an organization nor a nation with territory, government, buildings and army: an amorphous network does not capitulate as a country. How do we know we won?
The authors compare this with another three very different scenarios, coming as a result from the use of different wordings: “Fighting crime” (a police operation with different ethics and consequences to an army one), “Containing epidemic” (where the problem is the epidemic and the priority is in understanding where it comes from and what caused it) or “Stemming prejudice” (building bridges with the “other side” and isolating the trouble makers). Analysis in hindsight is an unfair exercise, but it is obvious that the results of G. W. Bush “war” would have been very different should he have chosen other words and metaphors.
The same is true for business leadership: the words we use in our business meetings, the metaphors by which we describe our challenges shape-up the construction of reality that our people will architect in their minds. “Leadership is about creating conditions for people to do and be their best” says Chris Parker (www.mobilizingteams.com): the words we use are creating our people’s context and response to it. Two short clips illustrate it:
- The awareness test (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jprOQB3DDL0) builds on a known research. How many passes does the white team make? See how these words condition your vision of the environment.
- The violin player (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WC9IvjrgZ7I) suggested on our blog by Alexandre T. Pauperio, is another great example: since the context, mental construct isn’t properly set, nobody on that rush hour notices the privilege of been entertained by one of the world’s masters in violin, until a lady…
Prior to engaging our teams intellectually and emotionally, we would be well inspired to reflect on the choice of our words and metaphors.
Thank you for the many of you who commented our latest post by e.mails and via this blog’s comments, have a good week. On my way to São-Paulo…
 (“Talking about Terrorism”, A. Kruglanski, M. Crenshaw, J. Post & J. Victoroff in Scientific American Mind pages 59-65 October/November 2008 www.SciAmMind.com)