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The emotional dimensions of metaphors of change

Roy K. Smollan (Department of Management, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand)

Journal of Managerial Psychology

ISSN: 0268-3946

Article publication date: 2 September 2014



Participants in organizational change use metaphors in discourse as a means of sense making, since they provide insight into ways of thinking and feeling about organizational change that are not as easily or as graphically captured by more conventional language. Although change is often emotional the affective elements of metaphors of change have been under-studied. Thus the purpose of this paper is to examine the emotional content of metaphors that participants use to describe their experiences in various change contexts.


In total, 24 people in different industries, organizations, functional departments and hierarchical levels were interviewed on their experiences of change and their affective reactions. Evidence was sought of the use of metaphors to portray emotional responses.


Participants used many metaphors of which the most prevalent were those relating to the rollercoaster and grief cycle. Other categories emerged from the meanings that underlay the metaphors and revealed a spectrum of emotions experienced during change.

Research limitations/implications

As figures of speech it is axiomatic that metaphors cannot be taken literally. Further research needs to discover what actors believe their metaphors mean and to take account of cultural differences.

Practical implications

Exploring the emotional meanings embedded in metaphors used by change actors will enable managers to create effective messages and to understand others’ responses to change.


Since most empirical articles on affective metaphors of change investigate single organizations or industries, this paper contributes to the literature by reporting on change experiences in different organizational contexts and by identifying categories of metaphorical expressions.



K. Smollan, R. (2014), "The emotional dimensions of metaphors of change", Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 29 No. 7, pp. 794-807.



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