When Encouraging Advice Goes Bad

What comes to mind when you look at this illustration?

Photo Credit: Adam Gault/Getty Images

I saw this image recently at the top of a Harvard Business Review article titled “To Prevent Burnout, Hire Better Bosses.” It’s a fine article, but the illustration took me in a different direction. Instead of thinking about burnout, stress, bad bosses, or good bosses, I saw the image as an example of how enthusiastic, well-intentioned advice is often really bad advice.

I have no idea what the artist had in mind with the illustration, but my first reaction was to envision a conversation between the two fish. It ends with the fish on the table saying, “You told me I could do it (gasp). You told me (gasp) I could leap out of the bowl (gasp). Now what?!”

Rewind the conversation to when both fish are in their bowl. One is discontent and longs to see the bigger world. Maybe he’s experiencing burnout.

“I feel so confined,” he says. “I feel like I need to get out of here. There must be more to life than this bowl.”

“What’s stopping you?” the other fish says. “You should go for it. Follow your heart! Jump! Jump! You can do it! I believe in you! Jump!”

Encouraged and inspired, the discontent fish swims a few laps to gather speed, dips down toward the bottom of the bowl, and then, with his friend yelling, “Jump, Jump, Jump!” in the background, rushes to the top, leaps out of the water and flops on to the table.

Success! Sort of.

The lesson is pretty obvious: Think about the consequences before you take a risky leap, or before you convince someone else to jump. It’s great to encourage people to pursue their dreams, but real leaders also help their followers see and prepare for the challenges they will face along the way.

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