The Boiled Frog

Years ago, my very wise son made a comment that sticks with me even today.  He said, “Things won’t change unless there is a cataclysmic event that jolts us out of our ennui.”  Or something like that.  Yes, he is a student of philosophy.

The question I have today, looking back on the past few years, is whether the cataclysm will occur visibly and intentionally (e.g., a war, a shut-down, a walk-out) or whether we will see the “drip method,” shoving tidbits of change at us until we look back and say, “Wow, something is different.”

That is a lot like the Boiled Frog Syndrome that is a staple metaphor in the field of organization development (OD).  It goes like this:

“The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of sinister threats that arise gradually rather than suddenly.” Wikipedia

As I look back on the past few years, I see us (organizations, the country, the world?) sitting in a pot of water that is starting to swirl around us.  We look around and ask ourselves, “What’s going on?”  It is increasingly uncomfortable but not sufficiently so that we take action.

We rationalize and justify our actions and behaviors, even when we see a glimmer that they might not be serving us well.  We resist ideas because they don’t fit our narrative – the comfortable narrative that we grew up with.

As I look at the burnout and employee issues we are seeing in our recovering country today, I wonder if the temperature is starting to overwhelm us.  These employee issues aren’t new.  They’ve been with us since the days that Frederick Taylor measured everyone into numbness.  Then through Douglas McGregor’s Theory Y.   And on to Edgar Schein’s awakening to the importance of corporate culture.  To Gallup’s research that said employee engagement is good for business.

All of these are research-based, yet evolutionary. Each is seeking the holy grail for business and employment.  Each idea has been “best practiced” to death, yet here we are.  Still seeing burnout, exodus, and frustration.

At what point do organizations look inside themselves for answers?  At what point do they realize that the answers lie in themselves if they ask the right questions.

Or do they wait until the water hits 212 degrees F?

Is it too late?  Are we being boiled to death?


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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    • I think I was a columnist but went astray trying to change the world. This new title better reflects what I want to explore. I’ve actually been with BC360 since pretty much the beginning.

      Will watch – sounds interesting…