The trouble with Fish!

In 1998, Stephen Lundin, Harry Paul, and John Christensen, two filmmakers and a motivational speaker published a book, Fish!, based on a film that they had made about the fish sellers in Seattle’s “Pike Place Fish Market”. It is a fictional story that explains how we may not be able to control our working environment, but we can choose our attitude towards it, and that to be happy or not is a choice. The film and book have proved very popular in management settings, and is not infrequently issued to ‘new hires’ as part of their ‘socialisation’ process.

There are two questions that Fish! and similar philosophies raise…

(1) Is adopting a “never mind what has happened; I control my attitude to it” mindset healthy?

(2) Is it appropriate as a management intervention?

The latter is straightforward-ish. These days, while it still happens, most OD experts would baulk at it. It’s a form of coercion by those in power (who can control your working life) over those who are powerless; effectively, it says; “We can make you do whatever we like, and you should choose to be happy about it.”

The first goes right to the heart of psychotherapy. There is a vast amount of research evidence that having a strong internal locus of control leads to positive psychological well-being with lots of spin-offs from that. What psychotherapy tries to achieve is to address those things within the individual that prevent them from experiencing this strong internal locus of control. In other words, to find the resources within to be able to ‘resist’ coercive or manipulative environments around them.

What Fish! tries to do, instead, is to reinforce an individual’s defence mechanisms (remember that humour (especially inappropriately timed humour) is one of those). By reinforcing these, the individual is not being helped – they are being set up for an even bigger crash later. Fish! might make you feel happy in the short term, but it’s likely to make you even less so in the longer one.

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