Have you heard about the experiment done years ago on jumping frogs that were placed in jars with lids?  To refresh your memory, the frogs had plenty of food and water, and due to their natural instincts, they continually tried to escape. They banged their heads on the lids again and again, as they jumped and jumped. Evidently, this went on for 30 days and on the 31st, the lids were removed. Free to escape on their next jump, they made no attempt because they were conditioned to believe escape was not possible. They had learned to self-limit.

I work in an environment with very senior military leaders and civilians. To be a senior in this organization you have to have been on the team for quite a while and be good at what you. In essence, because the manpower model is almost entirely close-looped, you have to live in the requisite jar for many years proving yourself at each and every promotion gate if you are to climb the ladder. Though there are outliers (thank goodness), many seniors share the same philosophies and approach challenges in a similar fashion. At this level, it is the outliers that generate the most value for the team. Unfortunately, the outliers are not as plentiful as the newly conditioned jumping frogs from the aforementioned experiment (note: Technically speaking, if the outliers outnumbered the main body, they wouldn’t be outliers…but we’ll ignore that). Sometimes, a leader represents the outlier perspective and he chooses to teach the once jumping frogs to jump. But are the frogs even listening?

I experienced this during my Command Tour and I am once again watching it from the cheap seats.  Watching it evolve is simultaneously entertaining and frustrating. It’s entertaining from a behavioral science perspective, and it’s frustrating from a “let’s get stuff done” vantage point. A great example was a recent progress report on a long-term project with a due date closing in quickly. As the project manager with his leadership team assembled,  updated his senior, he went down the list of significant lines of effort comprising the overall project. He proudly (and rightfully so) reported the significant progress made to date. Many actions were already closed and a few others were clearly on track to be completed by the directed suspense. There were, however, a subset of tasks that were proving to be somewhat problematic. As the project manager made an attempt to help his senior understand that they would not meet the deadline, the senior would respond with “unless we what?” After three or four iterations, it was no longer entertaining, just frustrating. Rather than communicate what it would take to meet the directed deadline, the team had accepted that mission accomplishment by the deadline was not in the cards. They were self-limiting; they had decided that jumping out of the jar was not possible. What the senior was hoping to hear was, “…with the addition of “X” personnel, an allocation of “Y” more dollars, and/or the incorporation of people with talent in the area of “Z”, we can meet the deadline and maybe even finish early.”

Too many people are quick to accept that things can’t be done or to explain why they can’t achieve a given objective. What we need is more people to communicate what it would take to achieve the desired end state. We may not get all of the resources we need, but we most certainly could begin to cultivate a “can-do mindset” that becomes the default. It has become my experience that in most cases the longer a member has served in the public sector, the more self-limiting they become. Fortunately, some key leaders in my career field are working hard to change that. The challenge remains that others in the chain of command are oblivious to the fact that the lid is no longer. At the same time, these very leaders are reminding those under their charge that “jumping” is wasted energy, as they point to a lid they have affixed themselves. That leaves only two options for the frogs…become self-limiters themselves or take their talents to another organization where the lack of a lid is celebrated and acknowledged by all.

  • Are you self-limiting?
  • Are you observing self-limiting behavior around you?
  • How are you encouraging frogs ever higher?

Please consider not telling yourself “No,” so that leaders have the opportunity to say “Yes.”