Gold fish in aquariumI was reminded recently of a Nutterism that really fit the struggles one of my culture clients is experiencing.

A little background is necessary. Jerry Nutter was my best boss ever. I spent 5 of my 15 years in YMCA management under Jerry’s tutelage – and I still reap benefits today.

Jerry had a way of expressing truths about people management that were a bit folksy. Us members of Jerry’s team called these “Nutterisms.”

The Nutterism that came to mind was “don’t bump the fishbowl.” When a goldfish bowl gets bumped, the fish are NOT happy. They scurry behind the fake plants (or the plastic castle) and huddle together in fear. Their world has been shaken (literally). They don’t know what’s coming next. They are unable to go about their business anymore – they can only huddle, and watch, and wait.

Leaders bump their employee’s fishbowls all the time! Leaders may not intend to disrupt employee’s work lives, but actions such as these do “bump the fishbowl”:

  • Announce changes but provide no context and no opportunity for questions
  • Make structural or staffing changes with no context and no opportunity for questions
  • Take credit for team or team members’ ideas, efforts, or accomplishments
  • Micromanage – attempt to control how team members do the work, even if team members are more skilled at the work than the leader is
  • Provide frequent critical and negative feedback; rarely validate team members’ efforts or accomplishments

What happens when team members have their fishbowl bumped? Typically, they scurry around and huddle together in fear. Their world has been shaken. Few are able to go about their business anymore – they huddle, and watch, and wait.

Change is constant. Leaders don’t need to insulate their team from change, but they need to reduce the negative impact of change.

So, how can leaders keep from “bumping the fishbowl?”

Plan. Map out a strategy – then explain the strategy. Be open and honest, consistently. Help team members understand what the issues, problems, or gaps are that need to be addressed. Tell them what you’re thinking of doing to resolve these issues.

Listen. Ask for their ideas and insights. Incorporate their good ideas. Reiterate that these changes are to address identified gaps and problems – and stress how their ideas are being embraced.

Implement and Adapt. Put plans into place and engage team members to learn if there is any unintentional “bumping” going on. Adapt the plan to gain the most benefit for everyone – team members, company, and customers.

How have past leaders of yours “bumped the fishbowl”? What team member reactions have you seen that I missed? What did your great bosses do to reduce the negative “bumps”? Please share your insights, comments, and questions in the comments section below.

Add your experiences to two fast & free research projects I have underway: the Great Boss Assessment and the Performance-Values Assessment. Results and analysis are available on my research page.

My new book from Wiley, The Culture Engine, guides leaders to create workplace inspiration with an organizational constitution. Get your free sample chapter here.

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S. Chris Edmonds

S. Chris Edmonds

Chris helps leaders create purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. He's a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He blogs, podcasts, and video casts. He is the author of The Culture Engine and six other books.
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Reader Interactions


  1. AvatarSamantha Hall says

    Oh my Chris. The stories I could share on getting the fishbowl bumped! Love that Nutterism, by the way!

    Some cultures are breeding grounds for fishbowl bumping and in some cases, can’t always be avoided. My experience in the military is a good example. While those in my chain of command were generally really GOOD about keeping us all informed about changes or plans….there is obviously much we don’t get informed on depending on what’s going on in the world. ie. After returning home from time served and training etc. My husband and I had only been married for 6 months when I received the call that I was being re-activated and re-assigned to a new unity and heading overseas. That was a HUGE ‘bump the fishbowl’ moment! And also one I couldn’t avoid experiencing because I was still technically ‘on the military clock’ even though I had returned home. (Based on my initial enlistment, I was still expected to be on inactive stand by for a certain period of time following my tenure on active duty.)

    I”ve also experienced fishbowl bumping in various healthcare settings and while working for an entrepreneur after my husband passed away. The latter was filled with it! haha New start up situation where not only was it a new ‘product’ launch for the entrepreneur, EVERYTHING was new to me. So it was easy to bump my bowl in that regard! haha However, one big bumping incident happened when I was asked to help with ANOTHER side business unrelated to the main one I had been working for. Right after starting in this field I had ZERO experience in, my ‘boss’ promised a new client that I was her new full time PR agent! What he asked me to do initially? ‘You’ll be responsible for writing some press releases for her and a little social media for ‘x’ amount of money.’

    #1) I was NOT a PR agent! lol I had no EXPERIENCE as a PR agent!
    #2) What I had agreed to do for x amount of dollars is not what he promised the client. Which was phenomenally MORE then what I was going to be receiving for the amount of time and work it would have taken me to do it all.

    I only found out when the client is the one who informed me that I was her full time PR person. I was totally put on the spot in a field that was completely unfamiliar to me. HUGE fishbowl bump.

    Needless to say, the matter did get cleared up and after a few more similar issues I simply gave up. I couldn’t work like that anymore.

    • S. Chris EdmondsS. Chris Edmonds says

      Wow, Sam – you’re had some “fishbowl bump” moments in your life! Great examples of differing expectations causing a “huh?” (or worse) reaction!

      Thank you for sharing – I appreciate YOU!



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