Doing Business with Boiled Frogs

The degree to which I hear reports of growing cynicism in today’s workplace reminds me of the parable of the boiled frog. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this analogy, imagine an experiment involving a frog, a pan of water and a stove.

As the parable goes, the frog is placed in the pan which contains room temperature water. The frog is content to sit there, especially if it has been out of water for a long time. It has no compelling reason to move. When the heat under the pan of water is warmed ever so gradually, the frog slowly adjusts to the warming water and, in the absence of any sudden change in temperature, eventually doses off and is boiled to death.

On the other hand, goes the parable, if you were to heat the water in the pan before the frog is placed in it, it will immediately sense the danger and leap from the pan to a place of presumed greater safety.

The purpose of the parable is to show how unaware we can be about insidious threats to our well-being. It graphically illustrates how easily humans can adapt to incremental changes, even changes which threaten their health and spirit, if these changes are slow and gradual enough.

In this parable, the frog represents people. The water represents the system – the places where we work and live. The pan represents the container, the larger system – society – which includes our workplaces, the market, entire nations, nature and the environment. The heat under the pan represents the energy that is threatening to destroy everything in the pan, albeit very gradually. The frog – people in this parable – slowly gets drowsy to the point of asphyxiation, as can happen when one spends too much time in a sauna or hot tub where the temperature is constantly increasing. Finally, it’s too late and the frog gets boiled, just to finish things off. Mercifully, the frog is by then oblivious to its eventual fate!   

Like the frog, people don’t notice the small incremental changes in their environments, at work or in society in general. They become insensitive because they’ve adapted; they have done what their ancestors did to survive – adapt or perish. In adapting, they have learned to ignore creeping degradations in the quality of their lives and their work experiences. They have become desensitized to situations that would have caused previous generations to “leap from the pan.” 

An important distinction between people and frogs: frogs don’t think. Frogs react. Frogs don’t make choices. They respond by instinct. People think and can make choices. They can awaken from their complacency and choose different outcomes for themselves. They can respond to critical choice points when they become aware of them. 

Who would you want on your team – a group of highly-adaptive cynics who had mastered coping in a spiritually hostile environment (like the boiled frog) or a group of people who are fully awake and alive, and bring their entire beings – their whole selves – to the job? For me, there’s no way I’d want to depend upon a team of boiled frogs.

This post first appeared on the Global Dialogue Center‘s blog, Exploring the Better Future with Futurist John Renesch on September 1, 2012. It is reposted with permission.

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