When change occurs in organizations at a gradual rate, sometimes people experiencing the change don’t notice until it’s too late. This is called the Boiled Frog Phenomenon, a psychological phenomenon that is a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness for people to react to significant changes that occur slowly.
When a frog is placed into boiling water, it will scramble to jump out. However, if it is placed into room temperature water that gradually rises, it will remain there until the rising heat kills it. Though this is commonly used to relate to business who do not notice market changes until their competitors are far ahead of them, it can also be related to hiring.
This phenomenon can be used on both sides of the hiring/employment relationship in different ways. For example, if a candidate comes in and immediately notices issues within a company, they will ‘jump out’ of the situation. When a candidate comes in and is happy with the company, they will likely accept the job. If the company gradually starts to go downhill, or their department slowly changes policies and practices, they may not realize the change until it is past the point of fixing, and ultimately leave the organization.
From the organization’s side, they may hire a candidate who seems great in the interview process, but whose performance gradually decreases to a point of extremely low productivity. Their manager would likely not notice the gradual decrease in performance until it hits a point where it has a large effect on the business. The gradual performance change allowed for the employee’s decreased productivity to go relatively unnoticed until it hit a point where the manager realized there employee was ‘killing’ overall productivity.
Another way organizations can face the Boiled Frog Phenomenon in hiring is with employee turnover. When a company gradually experiences turnover, they may not notice a rising problem until it is too late. When one or two employees leave over time, it may be attributed to various external reasons (i.e. higher salary, more experience, better benefits). However, as more and more employees leave, and organizations continue to fail to notice the increase (and potential internal issues) they will come to a point where their company cannot sustain adequate team size, causing failure (equal to the death of the frog).
One way to avoid falling victim to this phenomenon is to actively remain aware of change within an organization and search for sources. If the management or leadership within an organization is aware of small changes, and searching for reasons, they are likely to be able to impact that change before it reaches a point of no return (the water gets too hot).
How it impacts hiring
A specific way to avoid the Boiled Frog Phenomenon when hiring is to dig into a person’s competencies and experiences in a way that gets at their performance ability and track record. If they are a good fit for a role, they are likely to perform well throughout their time with a company, as opposed to an employee who just has a great personality in the interview, but not the competencies needed to perform well. Finally, to stay ahead of changes in employee turnover, companies should complete exit interviews, and learn why employees are leaving. If employees site internal issues, managers should strive to correct these problems in order to lower turnover. By getting a handle on these issues early on, fewer employees will leave the company, thus avoiding a high turnover issue.
All in all, the Boiled Frog Phenomenon is an interesting, yet relatable way to look at change within organizations. Often, gradual change is not noticed until it is too late, and many companies become the dead frog in the boiling hot water. However, by acknowledging these changes, organizations can overcome the phenomenon and avoid finding themselves in boiling water.