How the Circus Trains an Elephant to Stay Put

Personal BrandingSuccess Strategies

Editor’s Note: This blog is a modified excerpt from professional “headhunter” and bestselling job-hunting book author Skip Freeman’s next book in the “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets series of job-hunting books, CAREER STALLED? How to Get Your Career Back in ‘High Gear’ and Land the Job You Deserve─Your Dream Job. Publication is scheduled for early 2013.


Remember the last time the circus came to your town or city? If you’re like most of us you probably spent some time before or after the performance roaming around the grounds to get a “behind the scenes” look at the animals and other goings-on. Did you happen to notice how the elephants were simply chained to a large metal stake pounded into the ground, so that they stayed in one place? Certainly, if they tried, these huge, powerful animals could easily pull up the stake and go on their merry way. But that’s not what the elephants did at all. They stayed put.

The principle behind the elephant’s behavior is known as “conditioned response,” and here is how it works: First, the elephant is tethered to some object that it can’t move, or at least one that it can’t move very easily. Soon, the elephant just quits trying to “escape” and decides that it is probably in its best interest to quit struggling and stay put. Once this occurs, the elephant is then tethered to the aforementioned large metal stake and─you probably guessed it!─since the elephant “believes” it can’t easily pull away from the stake, it no longer even tries! The animal accepts its “fate” and decides to stay put!

Unfortunately, “conditioned response” can also play a vital role in influencing a human being’s behavior. Tell a person often enough that he or she can’t do something, or that he/she shouldn’t even consider taking some action, and soon that person may come to “believe” it and simply accept his/her “fate” and quit trying. Just like the elephants in the circus. Case in point: Literally tens of millions of currently employed men and women who managed to stay employed throughout the toughest, most turbulent job market in recent memory and who now, even though they may now be extremely dissatisfied with their current job, have become virtually immobilized when presented with genuine, new career opportunities. Rather, they, like the circus elephants, choose to “stay put” in their current job.

Why People are ‘Staying Put’ in Their Current Jobs

Here are just a few of the more common reasons currently employed men and women give for staying put in jobs that, in some cases, may have become all but intolerable:

  • After having been told, either implicitly or explicitly, over the last several years, how “lucky” they are to still have a job, many have come to honestly believe that they are indeed “lucky” to still have a job, when they’ve seen so many of their fellow workers lose theirs and be unable to land a new one.

As a matter of fact, “luck” has had little if anything to do with anyone having kept his/her job during the last several years. They have either branded themselves as being crucial to the ongoing success (or, in some cases, survival) of their companies, or there was some other legitimate business reason for keeping them on the payroll. If that weren’t the case, they would have been gone long ago.

  • As a result of the ongoing deluge of “bad” news on the job front during the last four or five years, many currently employed people actually believe that there are no jobs “out there” for them.

It’s crucial to keep in mind that, for the most part, the jobs the media focus on month after month, year after year, are new jobs being created. To be sure, we are not creating nearly enough new jobs to make the kind of dent we need to make in the rate of unemployment, but it’s also true that, each and every month, MILLIONS of existing jobs go unfilled!

  • Despite having received either no pay increases, or paltry pay increases, during the last several years, many of the currently employed honestly believe that they can’t afford to “pull up stakes” and explore new career opportunities. In other words, they believe they have on “golden handcuffs.”

While it is true that salary growth has been, and remains, somewhat stagnant in recent years, candidates who are successful in landing new career opportunities are oftentimes seeing salary increases in the double-digit range─something that cannot reasonably be anticipated in the near future by staying in most current positions.

  • Many currently employed men and women have a deep-down, genuine, abiding fear of making a job change, any job change. They would rather “stay put” in their “safe,” “predictable” current job, no matter how trying and/or stressful, than to take─or even to consider taking─any kind of risk on a new one.

The illusion that any job, in any company, at any time, is “safe” and “predicable” is just that─an illusion! It will not matter one bit if you’ve been with the company 10, 15, 20 or more years. It will not matter one bit if you’ve made substantial and significant contributions to the company during your tenure with it. On any given day, at any given time, and usually when you least expect it, when and if the company decides, for whatever reason(s), that it no longer requires your services, you will be gone, gone, gone! And, upon that fact, you definitely can rely!

Time to Pull Up Your Imaginary “Stake”?

Maybe you are among the group of “survivors” who have managed to retain a relatively high degree of overall job satisfaction. If so, that’s great! On the other hand, if your level of job satisfaction has steadily diminished in recent years, maybe it’s time to take a fresh, new, objective look at career opportunities that may await you in today’s steadily improving job market.

My professional advice: “Polish” your professional brand, pull up your imaginary “stake” in the ground—Hey! You are NOT a circus elephant, so don’t act like one!—and begin investigating some of these genuine career opportunities. You’ll be glad you did and, I strongly believe, you will also be pleasantly surprised at how much you really do have to offer, as well as how much can be offered to you!


Skip Freeman is the author of “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets: The Rules of the Hiring Game Have Changed . . . Forever! and is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The HTW Group (Hire to Win), an Atlanta, GA, Metropolitan Area Executive Search Firm. Specializing in the placement of sales, engineering, manufacturing and R&D professionals, he has developed powerful techniques that help companies hire the best and help the best get hired.