I have a Big Bunch of cartoons and I was illustrating another blog post when I came across two that I have not used in a zillion years, but both of which have some good learning and discussion points.

The classic is the old Boiling Frog metaphor. It is a good story, but patently untrue. But it is, again, a good parable. I liked what Snopes.com had to say about it — I mean you just cannot make this stuff up:

“The “boiled frog” story is indeed a kind of “old folk warning” an all-purpose didactic anecdote particularly favored by business types to illustrate the point that moving too recklessly and aggressively may leave one with an empty pot, but traversing a steadier course of more gradual change is much more likely to bring about the desired result.” It continues: “Or the story can be used in the opposite sense, to demonstrate the perils of remaining complacent in the marketplace.”

The fable is also used by moralists, apparently, “as a cautionary tale warning against the folly of letting smaller wrongs just slip by or of falling into a pattern of small and seemingly harmless sin rather than disturb one’s complacency enough to address these issues, thereby allowing evil to grow into a powerful force.” One should thus be very cautious about one’s apparent moral inactivity or complacency or you too may become frog legs on some evildoer’s plate! (Yes, you cannot make this stuff up!)

But the metaphor is NOT true. Professor Emeritus Hutchinson from Oklahoma University — a zoologist focused on the physiological ecology of thermal relations of amphibians and reptiles analyzing factors determining the lethal temperatures, critical thermal maxima and minima, thermal selection and thermoregulatory behavior of animals like frogs and turtles — states that this story is completely incorrect. Amphibia-like frogs maintain the body temperature of their surroundings, unlike mammals. The analysis involves gradually raising the frog’s seated temperature in water at 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature increases, the frog will become more and more animated in its attempts to escape the water and will do so if the container size and opening will allow it to jump out. (This sounds more and more like some workplaces I know of!)

Raise the heat and the frog jumps out, if it can. (There is some coaching metaphor in there, I think.) And apparently other researchers than Dr. Hutchinson have apparently studied this phenomenon — your tax dollars at work. Thus, my attempt to get some return on that investment by sharing this information.

You can actually find serious discussions of how to use the Boiling Frog Story at places like THIS ONE and even a religious site here. Someone even did a real science-oriented YouTube Video showing a frog in a pan on a stove who actually gets boiled… (No frogs were actually harmed, it said. But it said nothing about dinner…)

On the other hand, there is the Crab Bucket Phenomenon. Yes, in this one you must imagine the action of crabs when placed together in a bucket. (No boiling water is used in this experiment, although I do have some good recipes for crabs, clams and lobsters placed in somewhat different situations than that described here.)

The basic theme is that a bunch of crabs in a bucket will generally keep grabbing the crabs that are escaping, pulling them back into the bucket — it is a “same as everybody else” kind of situational existence in that none are allowed to escape, as if crabs are really thinking along those lines…  I think it is more like the old, “If all you have is a hammer, you tend to view everything as a nail” kind of view.

“If all you have is a claw, you tend to grab onto things!”

At least that was how I had been using it for many years, simply as a metaphor for people behaving so as to maintain the status quo and how things are. But when presenting in The Philippines years ago, I was given a very different spin. There, when one person becomes successful or starts a business, they are expected to help pull everybody else out of the bucket. If they had a company, they would be expected to hire a lot of their relatives, regardless of how much those people might actually contribute to profitability. As a result of this social expectation, it was more difficult for anyone to succeed.


Metaphors are great, since one can never really predict how people will react to them. I wrote about this a bit more in another blog, “Metaphors, Business Impacts and Behavioral Anchors

But I also find it pretty funny when public speakers talk about this stuff as if they actually knew “the mind of a crab” and its intentions. The term is “anthropomorphism” where one attributes human  characteristics to animals or other objects. “That bee was out to get me!” — In a couple of different online posts, people talk about the crabs working to keep everyone together and to not allow one person to succeed or some such craziola thinking. Yes, maybe the crab IS thinking of a career in the military services, or about getting a degree from one of the online colleges, but it is pretty hard to really know…

What metaphors do is allow people to project their beliefs onto them, and by sharing those beliefs, one can get a better idea of their thinking. When applied to organization improvement, there are a lot of positive impacts available.

If we can help you with some of our business improvement tools based on Square Wheels and other metaphors, contact us.

For the FUN of It.

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com

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