An indicator of group fear in organisations

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 2, 2014
Filed in Collaboration, Employee Engagement

Over the years I’ve shown a clever little animation in our workshops to illustrate our propensity to tell ourselves stories when things are ambiguous and unclear. It’s how we make sense of the world. But in running this video, perhaps hundreds of times, I think I’ve discovered another interesting use for it. It seems to give an indication of group fear. In other words, I reckon it reveals whether a group is well connected and feeling secure where members can take risks or the other end of the spectrum where there is fear, uncertainly and distrust.

Let me give you a little background on how I use the video and show you how the indicator works.

The video is about 90 seconds long. Just watch it and at the end describe what you saw happening. There are no wrong answers so whatever pops to mind.

So, what do you think the video was showing?

Just take a moment and jot down what you think was happening.

OK, most people ascribe human emotions and actions to the shapes. They say things like, “the big triangle was bullying the little triangle and the circle but the little triangle saved the circle.” Or they will ascribe roles to the shapes saying things like “the father didn’t like the boyfriend but despite being pushed away the boyfriend still went out with the girl and the father was angry.”

We like to tell ourselves a story to explain what’s happening rather than merely say they are geometric shapes moving on a two-dimensional plane. And because we tell ourselves a story we feel emotions as the story unfolds. And depending on our surroundings, we will verbalise these emotions.

So here is what I’ve noticed from showing this video to groups of people in organisations across the globe.

In most groups, regardless of culture, there is an audible titter or even a cheer when the little triangle escapes with the circle and a laugh when the big triangle smashes things up in the end.

It seems to me that the volume of the response is directly proportional to how safe and comfortable people feel with their colleagues. When the group is well connected the sounds increase.

However, when there is fear and distrust the group is stoney silent.

And when I ask the group about what they saw happening, the noisy group will offer suggestions freely and have a bit of a laugh about it. The silent group is reluctant to offer any suggestions for fear of getting it wrong or looking silly.

Now this has massive implications for creativity and innovation. Ed Catmull, the CEO and co-founder of Pixar made this point clear in his recent book, Creativity Inc., that this biggest killer of creativity is fear.

So if you want to get a bit of a litmus test on just how much fear there is in your organisation or group, just ask them to watch this video, ask what they see is happening and then listen to their response. You might be surprised by what you hear.

Of course these are just my observations. It would be great if a researcher did some tests to see if there was a link between how willing people are to verbally emote and the trustworthiness of the group. Sounds like a PhD for someone.

The animation was part of an experiment conducted by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel in 1944. Their paper is now a classic in human psychology.

Heider, F. & Simmel, M. (1944): “An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior“. American Journal of Psychology 57: 243-59

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Peter Fulcher-Meredith says:

    Thanks for this Shawn a real thought provoker. Now that I am working in Hong Kong I would like to try a little experiment here with my young predominantly HK Chinese colleague and see what the response is. I will post for you what happened.

  2. Wonderful post Shawn!
    We ARE storied beings!

  3. Love this article and always loved that little movie (ever since I studied Psychology). And I think you gave a beautiful twist to it (great observation!).
    Up to now I always saw it (and presented it) as the proof that we even make up (meaningful) stories abut moving abstract shapes, poving that we are wired for stories. A shortcut., I know, there is of course much more to say about that.
    Again, you gave it a nice twist by letting it tackle something essential in organizatins or groups. Thank you for that.

  4. Derek Winter says:

    Thanks for this Shawn, it’s fascinating! I am now looking forward to a chance to use it with a group and see what insights I gain from watching their response!

    I’d be interested in your experiences with how you varied the workshops when you ‘revealed’ a fearful group. Did you have any success helping them build trust?

  5. Maha Bali says:

    I love this! I came across this via Nancy White’s blog. Now i want to try this animation in my classes (I teach creativity) and in my department. I actually had a shift in how I saw this video (I am sure many people had diff interpretations): I first thought the large triangle was a benevolent being trying to “help” the others into the box (i know, symbolic of NON-creativity) and was focusing on how much control the it had on the opening/closing of the box. Then when i noticed the others were trying to escape i took the large triangle to be a manipulator trying to force the others into the box. What’s funny, though, is that i took the ending part (where the large triangle breaks different parts) positively: that it was opening up different entry points and making the box more permeable.
    Anyway, it’s interesting that people attribute this to human behavior. I wonder why that is, and I wonder what would happen when i show it. Really curious now, and holding back from blogging about it so that no one sees it before I run it as am activity!

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