Metaphors of failure and the failures of metaphor: A critical study of root metaphors used by bankers in explaining the banking crisis.

Dennis Tourish, Owen Hargie

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    63 Citations (Scopus)


    This paper analyses the testimony of four banking CEOs to the Banking Crisis Inquiry of the Treasury Committee of the UK House of Commons in 2009. We explore the root metaphors they employed as they sought to explain the banking failures that had occurred. Our analysis identifies four such metaphors. First, ‘the wisdom of the crowd’, in that bankers were influenced by the behaviour of significant others. Second, the bankers depict themselves as at times being forced to be passive observers of events. Third, they characterize themselves as victims of the crisis, sharing in the widespread pain it produced. Fourth, they are penitent learners, able and willing to improve. The main intent seems to be to frame public discussion of the crisis in terms which diminishes their responsibility for what happened. We also argue that the bankers’ discourse had limited impact in terms of framing public debate, while the metaphors they employed havethe potential to minimize learning from failure. The study of the metaphors of failure that they employed is therefore also the study of the failure of metaphor as an explanatory trope and an aid to organizational learning. In addition, we suggest that the impact of metaphors can be reconsidered in terms of what we term ‘the exclusion principle’. This suggests that, while they achieve some of their effects by a process of comparison between adjacent domains, and a consideration of differences between them, they also can exclude categories of meaning from consideration. Our paper therefore contributes to the literature on metaphor, as well as those considering organizational failure and associated attempts to draw lessons from the banking crisis.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1045-1069
    JournalOrganization Studies
    Issue number8
    Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 1 Sept 2012

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