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The Parable of the Hungry Rat
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 08/17/2015

Rat eating
The following is an installment in "The Bouchard 101", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

This is another story-based icebreaker. It is an excellent point of departure for a module on working with difficult colleagues.

It is a story of human concerns masked in the guise of talking animals. Basically, it is about a line level employee who becomes a tyrant.

Ten questions follow the story. Five are about the characters of the story. These are followed with five questions related to the story, but more conceptual. All of them come back to addressing a tyrant/bully.

To keep interest, a short PowerPoint might be a good tool. This can feature a picture of each character to correspond with the paragraph that the reader is on. For example, when reading a paragraph about Connie the rat, an image of a rat can be on screen. The initial work for this would be worth it for keeping interest. Also, it makes the facilitator more familiar with the story.

I believe that this should be read aloud by the facilitator. Having the class read silently would lend to skimming and less comprehension. It helps to train the trainer. Also, the instructor can gauge the crowd as the story goes on.

At the end of the reading, questions one through ten are asked of the participants. In an active group, answers will inspire more answers. Sometimes, as we have all found, we need to prod the group a bit. A recorder can be appointed to mark answers on the board or flip chart.

Also, there may be animosity driven by the story if similar incidents occur in the facility. Therefore, the facilitator must be mindful of events. It is wise to state that participants should not attack individual but should talk about concepts.

Now it is story time…

No one is immune from the seductive Siren songs of power. Almost everyone in the workplace is likely to face a megalomaniacal monster. This is the person that dreams of authority and becomes drunk on it. It can be line staff or official supervision.

Sometimes we delegate power to someone who is very eager to perform a less than desirable task. When the task is complete, we sometimes have to pry the fingers off the position. In other words, when we appoint someone to do a difficult job, they may be reluctant to relinquish power.

This little story asks the question: What do you do when you empower a megalomaniac? Please suspend your knowledge of how animals actually act and interact in the wild. With a little anthropomorphism, I spin the parable of the hungry rat. The Cast:
Alice – a hard working ferret – owner of a farm
Rudy – an insightful rabbit who has an infallible bovine-scatometer (BS detector)
Connie – a power hungry rat

Alice, a hard working ferret, ran a farm. She was successful in selling surplus produce to the local area. Alice liked her work and was happy, for the most part.

Rabbits were employed to keep the insects off of Alice’s crops. The rabbits were very adept at keeping weeds away from the commodity. On paper, the rabbits did very well.

On occasion, they did not.

You see, most of the rabbits did not always work well because they were easily frightened. They tended to scatter or hide under one another when adversity struck. Outside forces sometimes shook their mettle. They found themselves unable to concentrate, for example, when they were spooked by coyotes that prowled around the perimeter. It was very disruptive.

It was unfortunate that Alice could not control the outside forces. She thought about it and implemented defensive training for the rabbits. Alice hired an expert (a clever fox) who trained the rabbits in un-pawed self defense. The training seemed to go well. Yet, on the first occasion when a coyote attacked a rabbit, the results were not optimal. The violent passing of three of the more audacious rabbits was a somber occasion.

Rudy, an outspoken and bright rabbit, told Alice and her colleagues that fighting was not in a rabbit’s nature. The training, she said, was counter to rabbit psychology. One might as well expect a pig to walk on two legs - like some sort of Orwellian vision.

Determined for success of the farm, Alice tried some new training. A pensive owl lectured on the importance of self esteem to the rabbits. Predictably, the rabbits sat riveted to the words of the sagacious bird. Weeks later when a new round of harassment from the coyotes occurred, the rabbits fell apart. Fear overtook the feelings of empowerment instilled by the owl. The psychological training did not work.

Rudy reminded Alice that this group was not built for this sort of training. They needed protection from Alice in order to do their work. Frustrated, Alice said that she was too busy running things to protect the rabbits. Rudy rolled her eyes and went on with her work day.

Connie had a solution. She was a hard working rat who always seemed to keep her area orderly. However, she was known throughout the farm as bossy. On occasion, she would show her teeth and frighten her colleagues. In fact, all but Rudy would do her bidding when she snarled orders.

Connie asked Alice for power. In the wake of two expensive training fiascos, the ferret was at wit’s end. She granted Connie the authority to act as a surrogate in the interest of the rabbits.

Connie did not have the tact of Alice. She was feared, whereas Alice was generally respected. In addition, Connie used fawning to stroke Alice’s ego. She did not mean the compliments. They were merely a tool to get things to move her way. The beleaguered Alice did not see through Connie’s sycophantic ways.

It was fear of Connie that kept the rabbits busy. Then, the test day came. Another round of coyote prowling commenced. Connie was on the fence, hurling invectives and brandishing her teeth. Surprised by the resistance, the bulling coyotes looked for easier prey. Connie was a star!

More coyote harassments came. They were deflected by Connie.

Unfortunately, Connie’s actions were fueled by hostility and not by professionalism. After each trouncing of the coyotes, Connie was an unbearable tyrant on the farm. She was, no doubt, emboldened by each new success. The ends were admirable. The means were dubious.

Connie, never shy about reporting her achievements, trumpeted her victory over the coyotes to Alice. Relieved, Alice gave Connie what she directly asked for – more power. Grateful for the apparent rise in productivity, Connie was given carte blanche. From there, Connie’s reign of terror intensified. Connie had barely acknowledged her rabbit peers as colleagues. Now they were merely subjects.

Rudy saw through the incident. She knew that Connie was successful. But in the retelling, Rudy noted that Connie elevated herself to mythical proportions. It was only Rudy who stood up to Connie’s tactless, officious ways.

Alice was away often, a bit intoxicated by less responsibility. An imaginative, if not deluded ferret, Alice believed that all was working as it should.

The gardens became a mess, as the intimidation tactics used by Connie eventually froze the rabbits into inactivity. When Alice timidly asked about this, Connie said that with more power, she could get things in shape again.

Rudy, being a good observer, noted that Connie was getting power drunk and more offensive. Yet, Alice was blinded by the result over the means. Alice was now intimidated by Connie, having given authority to a bully. Rudy pointed out to Alice that she has empowered a megalomaniac and that wresting the power from her would be like dislodging a deep rat’s nest.

This parable is without an ending. I would be nice to say that Connie realized the error of her ways and dropped the bullying act. It would also be nice if Alice seized the reigns of the farm. Here are some questions to consider:

What role does Rudy play in all of this?
Should Alice have seen through Connie’s false compliments?
Do you view Alice as too weak or too busy?
Can Alice get any credit for trying new training?
Is Connie a horrible bully or an opportunist with aspirations?
How do you keep in charge even when there is a nasty job that you would rather delegate?
Are outside forces part of the stress of any job?
Is the bottom line result more important than the process?
Does training always work? Should it be tailored to fit the needs of the group?
What do you do when you empower a megalomaniac? What are some of the consequences?

Joe Bouchard is a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections and a collaborator with The International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP). He is also the author of “IACTP’s Corrections Icebreakers: The Bouchard 101, 2014”. The installments in this series include his opinions. The agency for which he works is not in any way responsible for the content or accuracy of this material, and the views are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the agency. While some material is influenced by other works, all of the icebreakers have been developed by Joe Bouchard.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

Other articles by Bouchard:


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