The parable of the boiled frog

Peter Senge wrote 20 years ago about the parable of the boiled frog. If you place a frog in a shallow pan of boiling water it will immediately try and jump out. But if you place the frog in warm water, and don’t scare him, he’ll stay put. If the heat was gradually turned up, the frog would stay in the pan, until it’s too late and he’s unable to climb out. The imagery is somewhat gruesome but the lesson is clear. Like the frog, our internal apparatus for sensing threats to survival is geared to sudden changes, not to slow, gradual changes.

 Those of us involved in leadership and organisational development would do well to pay attention to our disquiet: it is often an early warning sign. I’ve been noticing my own unease this past week as I’ve been preparing thoughts for a middle management development for a global company.  Are we willing to wake up to the bigger picture, to the threats and opportunities we sense around us, or is the lull of the warm water just too tempting?

 Here are five issues to which we should pay more attention:

 1. Impact of the recession. This is likely to result in a familiar, but not inevitable, pattern described by Barry Oshry: overwhelmed Tops sucking up yet more responsibility from others; increased fractionation of the Middle with associated personal and system dis-integration; heightened vulnerability at the Bottom with Bottoms blaming Middles and Tops. So, one possibility is increased polarisation and conflict. However, we know from complexity science that at times of great turbulence the system can break down or break through to a new state of order.  We are in, what Robert Kegan describes, as a zone of ‘optimal conflict’. Optimal conflict is characterised by four conditions: the persistent experience of some dilemma, perfectly designed to cause us to feel the limits of our current way of knowing; in a sphere we care about; with sufficient support and challenge so we are neither overwhelmed by it, nor able to escape or diffuse it. Our current situation could also be a point of breakthrough if we have the courage to engage with these issues and then the insight to judge how best to act.

 2. Loss of trust in leaders and organisations. Many people have lost faith in Top leaders and organisations more generally. Too many positional leaders have abused their authority (bloated unfair rewards, corruption, abuse of children in the case of churches) and this has infected the trust we have in all leaders, resulting in a generalised cynicism of those with positional authority. People also know from their own experience that many promises made by Tops cannot be honoured and in that sense were not made in good faith. There is much denial of the fact that no one is in control: Marv Weisbord comments that corporate “destinies are entwined in a maelstrom of markets, technology and world events”. Tops make promises about the longevity of changes, ignoring the fact that their tenure is likely to be short and the next sets of Tops will likely sweep away in months the changes from the previous lot.  This climate of cynicism affects anyone in a position of authority: Top, Middle and Bottom. We need to acknowledge where we are, if we want to make progress.

 3. Unlearning our taken-for-granted assumptions about ‘organisations’/organising. Without a basic shift in thinking all our strategies and activities around leadership and organisational development may just be froth on the sea, quick to disappear and of no substance.  Gregory Bateson, the biologist and anthropologist, said 40 years ago “the source of all our problems today comes from the gap between how we think and how nature works. In practice, many of us still operate, and our programmes and interventions are designed, as if organisations (and the world) operated as a predictable machine. In fact, organisations are a continuous interplay between formal designed structures and informal human networks. These networks take little account of the boundaries of the legal entities we call ‘organisations’. We would do well to acquaint ourselves much better with complexity science, ecology and the science of living systems and revisit our taken-for-granted governing ideas around organising based on control, prediction, consistency and measurement.

4. Illegitimacy of the current capitalist model and unresolved questions of social justice. No less an institutional figure than Michael Porter (the guru of corporate strategy) wrote in the Harvard Business Review last year about rethinking capitalism: “Companies are widely perceived to be prospering at the expense of the broader community”. He went on to set out his big idea on ‘Shared Value’ explaining that “not all profits are equal… profits involving a social purpose represent a higher form of capitalism.” I quote Porter because he is very much an insider, a Demi-God in the world of global business schools.  Dee Hock, founder of VISA, in its early days one of the most radical companies in terms of its design and philosophy, commented that the “highest levels of management in all organisations, commercial, political, social, and educational, are now formed of an interchangeable, cognitive elite with immense self-interest in preserving existing forms of organisation and the ever-increasing concentration of power and wealth they bring”. In the last few weeks in the UK, shareholders are beginning to find a voice to protest about the continuing level of lucrative pay and share deals awarded to Top Directors despite poor company performance. At the same time a dramatic protest by cleaners at the Government Department of Work & Pensions, highlighted that the minimum wage is not a living wage. Inequality is real and growing and our warms words about ‘partnership’ and ’collaboration’ will be empty unless we engage with the reality of our social and political context.

5. Loss of purpose, principles and values. In terms of the recessions in Western economies Meg Wheatley commented: “This isn’t a financial crisis. It’s a global crisis created by a world organised on economic values”.  What is the purpose, principles and values that are worthy of our commitment and which would animate and create the organising structure around which people can mobilise?  “The strength and reality of  every organisation lies in the sense of community of the people who are attracted to it, its success has enormously more to do with clarity of shared purpose, common principles and strength of belief in them, than with money, material assets or management practices, important as they maybe” (Dee Hock). At a societal level, the question of purpose and values is just as important. In the UK, an important public debate will be held next week on the site of the Occupy Movement, St Paul’s Cathedral, addressing the question: What Money Can’t Buy:The Moral Limits of Markets

We are in a complex situation.  None of us are innocent, standing outside the systems of which we are critical. The choice is: do we see ourselves as players or victims? If we wake up to the threats that are around us, find the courage to speak and to play our part alongside others, we can make a difference.  

 Back to my middle management programme…


6 Responses to The parable of the boiled frog

  1. Donna Dibbert says:

    Hi John
    I like your parable and am currently dealing with a situation that relates well to this. My parable is that staff within organisations are in a rowing boat, each with positions in the boat that they feel comfortable and safe in, they can move around within the confines of the boat and understand who will move for them and the positions that are know to them. However, at the sea becomes more choppy with budgetry cuts and economic uncertainty, the postions become more fixed and moving around is more risky. The ability to share with colleagues in the boat now becomes a risk and the polarisation you mention becomes percieved as a battle to survive.
    Our challenge is to support, challenge and give sight of what is happening both in the boat and in the sea. We may be near the shore and can paddle to safety but are not able to see this
    Good to hear from you and hope to talk soon

  2. julianstodd says:

    Very interesting, a clear set of challenges! But if i’m going to focus on one area, what should it be…? What can i do to ward off the despair?

    • John Watters says:

      Primarily, this is a shift in how we view the world: clearer seeing is the starting point. Appropriate action arises from that new place. As Danny Chesterman’s comment makes clear the article is also about recognising that the system is interrelated and I am part of it; Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, which I posted under Danny’s comment, communicates this powerfully.

      In terms of despair, it helps to get a proper perspective on our action. It matters greatly what I do and how I am. The ripples effects and perturbations caused by any part of the system can be significant: Occupy in UK would be one example of a small group of people who sparked a national conversation. In our work, as in life, it’s important to touch what is healthy and productive (appreciative inquiry) as well as what is problematic and stuck. That’s the middle way between despair and denial.

  3. Silvia Prins says:

    Hallo John,

    Thank you for the thought provoking challenges you so nicely summarize for us.
    Good to know what to pay attention to, unless we want to end up boiled like frogs…
    Warm regards from Belgium,

  4. Danny Chesterman says:

    Hello John and all
    I guess its tempting to think of ourselves (or our clients) as the frog , especially as they are animate and the other actors (the pan, the water, the heat, the heat source,) are inanimate. But from a whole system perspective we are all these other things too…we provide the frame (the pan) we daily enact the culture (water) in which we and others swim, we provide the heat source through burning carbon and we are the observers who observe the whole scene. We are the boilers as well as the boiled. Does that mean we should be able to take the pan off the heat or even turn the heat off altogether?


    • John Watters says:

      I agree that we do not stand outside of any of this. My favourite poem that first revealed this to me twenty years ago is by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist teacher and peace activist. I come back to it whenever I start to believe again that the problem is over there, with those ‘others’.

      Please Call Me by My True Names

      Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
      because even today I still arrive.

      Look deeply: I arrive in every second
      to be a bud on a spring branch,
      to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
      learning to sing in my new nest,
      to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
      to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

      I still arrive in order to laugh and to cry,
      in order to fear and to hope.
      The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
      death of all that are alive.

      I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
      and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.

      I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
      and I am the grass-snake who approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.

      I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
      my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
      and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

      I am the twelve year old girl, refugee on a small boat,
      who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate;
      and I am the pirate not yet capable of seeing and loving.

      I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
      and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people,
      dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

      My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life,
      My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

      Please call me by my true names,
      so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
      so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

      Please call me by my true names,
      so I can wake up,
      And so the door of my hear can be left open,
      The door of compassion.

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