Your “Normal” Isn’t Normal

There is a myth about the story of the Boiled Frog. It says that, if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out immediately to save itself. However, if you put a frog in a pot of water and then begin to turn the temperature up slowly it won’t jump out — and will end up as a boiled frog.

While this myth has been debunked by scientists, it still serves as a powerful metaphor of what can happen to us when we get stuck in an unhealthy normal. It occurs when any lower-floor mood state — like impatient, bothered, blaming, self-righteous, etc. — becomes so familiar that you don’t notice it anymore.

People often adjust to unhealthy environmental conditions in a way that resembles the frog. For example, for a few weeks after we moved my company headquarters into a new building adjacent to an extremely busy freeway in Huntington Beach, California, I was bothered by the constant sound of traffic. Today when guests ask how I manage to work with the noise, my response is, “What noise?”

Think about a time when you were continuously bothered or irritated by a situation in your life. This could be a tumultuous relationship with a coworker, a romantic relationship, or a situation that wasn’t playing out to your liking. You may have noticed it up to a certain point, but it may have also reached a state of happening so often that you didn’t even realize it anymore. It may have taken a vacation, or a loved one saying something like “what’s eating you? You’ve been in a bad mood for months” to snap you out of it.

Being in a constant state of a lower mood floor can have impacts on your relationships. When you’re bothered, it’s very difficult to communicate. It can also impact your work life — most people don’t enjoy collaborating or working with a co-worker who appears to be angry all the time.

A great example of this is Enron, the energy and commodities trading firm in the 1990’s. I was asked to meet with Enron’s top executives at that time, and I quickly noticed that their culture was driven entirely by an excessive focus on self-interest — that was their unhealthy normal. We pointed this out and warned the company’s leaders that, in the long run, this approach to business carries significant dangers and was ultimately unsustainable. We turned down the engagement and a few years later, the company collapsed. This is an extreme example of the negative consequences that come with an unhealthy normal.

Mood Elevator – Larry SennThe key to preventing and escaping from unhealthy normal is simply being aware. The Mood Elevator can serve as your human dashboard, similar to the dashboard on a car. Just as a red light on your car’s dashboard starts blinking when the engine is overheating, rising anger offers a warning when your emotions start heating up. And just as your car’s gauge warns you when you are low on fuel, the feelings of depression let you know when your emotional energy is low.

This Human Dashboard functionality is one of the most practical applications of the Mood Elevator. If you can start to learn how to notice your feelings as they change — particularly when you start moving to the lower floors — you can allow these feelings to trigger corrective actions.

Here are some “symptoms” you may seem to notice in an unhealthy normal.

Excessive intensity
A judgmental attitude
A sense of unworthiness
The need to be right
Blaming or excuses
An unwillingness to admit mistakes

Start keeping an eye out for these feelings. It’s also important to listen to those closest to you if they point out that they’re noticing you in one of these moods. Our first instinct may be to get defensive after hearing constructive criticism, but don’t dismiss them; they are trying to tell you that your human dashboard is flashing warning signs that you might be overlooking.


This post originally appeared on

About Larry Senn

Hometown Authors Headshot

Dr. Larry Senn is the founder of Senn Delaney, the culture shaping unit of Heidrick & Struggles. He has been referred to in business journals as the father of corporate culture, based on his field research: the first systematic study ever conducted on the concept of corporate culture.

Share This Article

What People Are Saying

We invite you to be the first to leave a comment!

Add A Comment