Are You a Victim of the ‘Boiled Frog’ Syndrome?

As distasteful as it is to consider this analogy for real, many of us can find ourselves falling foul of the ‘boiled frog’ syndrome. You know that situation where the frog (you or I) jump into a pot of cold water and all seems fine and then bit by bit the water heats up on the stove and before we know it is boiling and we’ve boiled along with it….as I say it’s not a pleasant analogy but it’s very apposite in a climate where there is so much going on every day that we lose touch with the appropriate response, choices or actions.

If, like so many, you have been under a period of sustained change, stress, pressure and just about keeping your head above water it’s possible that when you hear some information that would ordinarily be shocking – for example really poor engagement scores across the board or 25% staff turnover, extremely high sickness rates – you no longer are shocked.

It’s not that you’ve become a bad person or lost your faculties…it’s more case of no longer being able to see or feel the emotional or intellectual responses in the same way.

This is, of course, a dangerous place to end up, particularly if many in the organisation have hit the same place. What causes it? Many things of course, but typically an over-emphasis on one type of response to all challenges, which usually comes from an extreme task focus with limited regard for the needs of people. This stress of an overstuffed task list or poor management practices to manage the workload pressures accumulates. At the root is often an over-ambitious view of what’s possible given available resource and capabilities coupled with a lack of creativity in how to find new approaches.

What to do about it? Well, firstly we have to face the situation as it is and realise we may have lost the awareness of the need to jump or change our practises. To support that, one option may be to invite people in from the’ outside’ to give you the ‘wake up’ call that will enable you to jump out of the boiling water before it’s too late…these may be people from other departments, other levels, other stakeholders, consultants, industries and so on. Building a practise of perspective building and reality checking is ever more vital in a world where the intensity of daily life is for many out of all known proportions.

And the added advantage of gaining the perspective – apart from not boiling alive – is that quite often that other perspective, input, viewpoint might just bring some fresh thinking that helps you make more transformational change if and where needed…

The alternative is that we continue going as we are and risk becoming a mere shell of ourselves – individually and organisationally. Or we become hard-nosed about the dispensable nature of people and talent and create an organisation that loses all sense of itself and its core human values.


Lorraine Flower
Lorraine Flower
As a Corporate change agent, consultant, coach and mentor Lorraine founded azzur and is completely transparent about the spiritual principles on which it operates. Alongside her 18 years as azzur’s founder, Lorraine brings 20 years' service industry experience to bear through her senior leadership roles at British Airways (BA) and Great North Eastern Railway (GNER). It is Lorraine's belief in individual and organisational power for good that gives azzur its raison d'etre. azzur and Lorraine specifically has worked with clients across the business spectrum from financial services, to retail and transport to healthcare an in both the public and private sectors. azzur is focused on developing contemporary, spirited leadership capability, and organisations built on inspiring purpose, empowering cultures and a powerful vision and values. She is championing new models of leadership and organisational development founded on the principles of conscious leadership and writes extensively on these topics.She is a member of a number of global spiritual groups and communities serving the greater good of Humanity and the planet. She works and studies extensively in developing and exploring conscious leadership believing that business leaders are key players in transforming the well-being of the planet and humanity as a whole.

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  1. “…typically an over-emphasis on one type of response to all challenges, which usually comes from an extreme task focus with limited regard for the needs of people.” Could not agree with you more. The question is how to change things at the core? We spend some $14B a year (that’s billion) on leadership development. How do we get to young leaders earlier to break the cycle.

    • It’s partly about getting to younger leaders but its also about changing the core system and culture because otherwise they ‘back’ go into a dysfunctional system and become the frog…

  2. Lorraine, thank you for bring this important topic to our attention.

    Yes, indeed and unfortunately, we all have found ourselves in similar situations. Sometime ago when discussing this analogy in a workshop, we focused on the all-important question, “What exactly killed the frog?”

    Most people present spontaneously said that it was the boiling water. But factually, it was the frog’s own inability to decide WHEN to jump.

    We all have to adjust to both people and situations, but we have to be sure about when we need to adjust and when we need to keep moving forward. There are moments when we need to face up to the situation and take the appropriate action.

    Let us DECIDE when to jump while we still have the strength.

  3. I’ve just jumped out of the pot! Although, I would not recommend this solution to everyone, it is the one I chose. There has to be time in the day to allow your brain to disengage if you want to continue doing your creative best. Anyone who cannot understand or accommodate that cannot “boss” me. I’ve worked very hard to get to a point in my life, at work and home, where I recognize this truth. I’m not about to give it up now. Thank you for validating my experience.

  4. I loved your article and perspective Lorraine. An outside perspective (that needed wake up call) in my experience has made such a difference in the non-profit and for profit work that I have been involved in. Your thoughts resonated with me fully and completely.

  5. What an important topic and a meaningful article, Lorraine! My analogy is the clients who somehow overtime find themselves surrounded by physical clutter and now it overwhelms their office, home, their lives. How important it is to tend to the whispers in life before they become screams, to do so from a muliti-dimensional perspective of mind/body/heart/soul, people, tasks, space, etc.

    I think a great deal happens that causes “waxy build up” or the boiling frog -mostly it has to do with not resolving issues as they occur, responding in a way that meets the challenge at the “whisper” or “temp being turned up.” Clearing as we go along has not been a skill we’ve developed as a culture. Many people have built up unresolved emotional backlog that either creates “blow up” or “shut down”– neither effective when change comes fast and hard. My initial reflections anyway….

    Thank you for bringing this important topic to light!

  6. Lorraine, YES! I think many of us have been there. You are in the organization for a while and everything “seems” to be OK. Some call it burnout, others stress, just plodding along or “losing the spark”. We become so focused on the day to day “get it done stuff” that we forget to see the WHOLE picture. We lose sight of taking the organization to the next level, develop new ideas and inventions, programs, etc. I believe that organizations (especially nonprofits) need to keep this in mind if they want to be successful and able to sustain and grow their organization. A nonprofit right from the start, should think about bringing board members with ideas and personalities that are “different, contrasting” (but with a passion for their mission); getting different perspectives of ideas, goals, etc. Seeing something from a different angle. So many times we surround ourselves with people that “think like us” and we miss out on new ideas, goals and even problems and challenges that need to be addressed. We no longer see where things need to be changed because we have become complacent or “used to it. Rather than let the water get to the boiling point, we need to lift the lid, check the pot on a regular basis and adjust the temperature.