Living in a fishbowl

Don’t look now – it just might be you.

If you’re a leader, you have a special role in your organization. Let’s imagine for a moment that your role can be represented by a large glass fishbowl. The old fashioned, hand-blown kind – with lots of wavy spots and distortions in the glass. 

Everyone else in your organization is outside the fishbowl. This fishbowl moves with you so you don’t even notice it’s there. And therein lies the problem. Three problems, actually.


Problem One: Your followers’ perceptions define your reality

Most leaders have great intentions. However, other people can’t see intentions through the fishbowl. All they can make out are the leader’s actions, and those actions are a bit distorted at best. So this leads to people assuming what the real intentions are – and they’re usually wrong. That wouldn’t be a problem – except that the leader can suddenly find himself or herself with a reality that he or she never intended to create.

Case in point: A fellow we know founded a start-up where every prospective employee was interviewed by everyone in the company. That worked pretty well – until he discovered they needed serious marketing help fast. He remembered his buddy from college who majored in marketing, hired him over a weekend, and introduced him to the company on Monday morning as the new VP of Marketing. His intentions were all good: get quick, effective and trusted marketing help for the company.

I’ll bet you can guess what the 30 people people outside the fishbowl started thinking – something like: my opinion no longer matters; the boss doesn’t care about me or the team; it’s not what you do, it’s who you know; and so on. hits went up and productivity went down. Which brings us to…

Problem Two: Feedback from people often feels like a personal attack

The fishbowl also works in the other direction. When something is pointed out (even very gently) from outside the fishbowl as being less than good, as it goes through the fishbowl it intensifies into a white-hot laser beam going into the middle of the leader’s soul. It feels very personal and very painful.

Here’s the response from the boss when we filled him in on how he was impacting the team:

“What?!? Now, let’s be fair here. We’re talking ONE PERSON! One…out of thirty! Up to now I’ve let them pick and choose every single person on the team. Don’t I get to make decisions about the makeup of this team?!? Didn’t I build this company from scratch?!?”

You can see how these two problems can combine to create a “non-feedback” loop:  Someone casually mentions, “I think we could be better in [business component here].” The comment passes into the fishbowl, turns into a laser beam that strikes the leader, who takes it personally and reacts. This reaction is interpreted by many as, “Clearly our leader cannot handle any bad news.” And then the leader is left wondering why he or she never knows about failures until they are occurring or have occurred.

Actions you can take today

  1. Be aware that your intentions are often misperceived. Communicate the reasons why you are doing things…especially when people could perceive a meaning you don’t intend.
  2. Don’t take things personally. When someone mentions something that starts to sting, avoid overreacting and ask questions to understand more instead of being defensive. Get more information to see the opportunity to improve rather than seeing it as an attack.
chris hutchinson, CEO

chris hutchinson, CEO

Problem Three? Because you are in the fishbowl you can’t see when and where the fishbowl is dirty. In other words, because of your role, you will have blind spots that make you less effective. To fix these, ask a trusted advisor to point out any “dirtiness” in your fishbowl and clean as needed.


Chris Hutchinson

As CEO of Trebuchet Group, Chris Hutchinson thrives working with clients and his team to improve organizational clarity, teamwork, and leadership impact.

After years of building Legos® and tree houses around the world, Chris earned his Mechanical Engineering degree and followed that with an MBA. His experiences in the military and the business world taught him great leadership can be learned, and everyone is in some way a leader.

Clients and peers describe him as an inspirational catalyst for positive change. He is the author of Ripple - A Field Manual for Leadership That Works.

Chris and his wife live, garden, and bike in Fort Collins, Colorado, and have four children. He has an unrequited love affair with brownies.