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  • Desleigh White

Treat your people like this cicada

Bear with me, you'll see my point shortly. 

I saw this cicada on the beach one morning. It was upside down in wet sand; it was not looking good (I actually thought it was dead). I checked by lightly touching my finger to its legs and low and behold it grabbed on and I gently picked it up. I could have placed it upright in the same spot, but considering the tide and water nearby, decided to walk it over to this driftwood where I carefully placed it, hoping that if its wings were wet, they would dry and the sand would fall away, enabling it to fly again.

The experience made me reflect on our people and psychosocial risk management. Weird connection huh! That happens when I walk in nature. 

It made me think about how often people are like this cicada, figuratively (or literally) upside down, immobilised, or just stuck. We often leave people alone to 'let them problem solve' or 'let them figure this out, it's good for their development'. Or because we are uncomfortable with their predicament if it relates to emotions. 

Sometimes they are able to right themselves, pull themselves up. But sometimes they aren't. In either case, what is the impact of being left to stumble in the dark, or in this case, wet sand? 

The impact on their sense of psychological safety, on their emotions, is important. Why? Because of the flow on effect discussed in a recent article. It impacts, among other things, attendance, engagement, teamwork, intent to stay, behaviours, satisfaction at work, productivity, customer satisfaction, business performance and even whether change initiatives are successful. 

When we leave people to save themselves from the proverbial wet sand, we are unlikely to be living our personal or organisational values. We are showing a lack of care for them, their performance, their success and frankly, our businessor organisation. We are also demonstrating a lack of responsibility for our psychosocial obligations.

Instead, let's find a way to apply the cicada experience, check in about what they need, support them with it if they know what they need. When they 'don't need anything' or 'everything is fine' then find another way, perhaps share an observation or a concern.

Consider being vulnerable - 'I remember when I first tried [actual thing] and I felt really stuck and uncertain of what to do, and also unsure if I could ask'. Naming emotions helps us to normalise the different ways we feel at work and in other areas of life. Or even ask permission to share thoughts on the work project - 'what approach have you considered with this?' or 'I am happy to share my experience if it would be helpful'.

If it is an emotion or wellbeing concern, consider simply holding space with and for them. You could do this by observing a behaviour - 'I noticed you are ...... Would you like to talk about it, I am a good listener'. No advice necessary, just listening. In one of my most awkward moments many years ago, I simply said 'I really want to support you. I don't know what to say and I am afraid I might say the wrong thing'. The person told me that was the perfect thing to say for her.

So, back to the cicada. Let's double down on not letting our people be isolated, alone, upside down and in wet sand. Let's do everything we can to build the workplace cultures that mean we pick people up (figuratively only!) and do everything in our power to set them up to succeed.


For those to whom cicada are unfamiliar, check Wikipedia - interestingly I just learned that they were mentioned in literature back to the times of Homer and the Iliad. I have fond childhood memories of searching for cicadas in the trees - finding a 'grey ghost' resulted in 100 points, a 'black prince' 50 points, the green ones 10 because they were so common. There was no point other than competition to the point system. What I also like about cicada is their 'song' which heralds summer and holidays in my mind.

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