What can some monkeys tell us about our culture?

Monkey see… Monkey do…

I came across an article a while back about a study that was done with some monkeys. I’m not sure if the story is true or not, and after a couple of google searches, I found mixed results. Instead of trying to link to one of those stories for my current article I’m writing about high performance and high morale in teams, I decided I’ll just go ahead and write it myself.

It goes like this: Years ago a famous psychologist and his team took a group of five monkeys and placed them in a cage with a ladder and a bunch of bananas hanging down from the top of the cage in the middle of the space. The monkeys at first were allowed to eat some bananas and they loved climbing to the top and grabbing a banana.

The scientists watched and let them eat all of the bananas the first go around. After that, they placed another bunch of bananas on the hook and then when the first monkey climbed up to grab some of the fruit, they sprayed the entire cage down with water–soaking the monkeys and causing them to freak out.

They did this over and over again, each time a monkey would climb up on the ladder, they’d immediately start spraying ALL the monkeys with the cold water. Until finally, the monkeys started to beat the monkey who would climb up to the top. With the water and bananas, they created a behavior in the monkeys that whenever one of the other monkeys climbed on the ladder, they would all start freaking out and they would attack the monkey on the ladder so that the water wouldn’t get sprayed on all of them.

Of course, after a time, no monkey would dare climb the ladder no matter how hungry they were. The scientists all looked at each other and were satisfied that they had conditioned the monkeys to be afraid of the beating and the water that would punish all of them.

Don’t fall into the water!!!

Then the scientists did something different. They added a monkey from another group that had never been sprayed. As soon as that monkey came into the group, he saw the bananas and immediately went for the ladder–this caused the other monkeys to leap into action and do their thing. They, of course, beat the heck out of that poor new monkey until he learned not to climb the ladder.

The difference was, the scientists stopped spraying the whole cage down now that they had a new monkey in the cage. Can you imagine what that poor monkey was thinking? Anyway, the scientists waited until the new monkey knew darn well that if he got on the ladder, a beating was coming.

Then they added another new monkey, and they continued to do the same thing until there were no more monkeys in the cage that were subjected to the original water spraying punishment. Now they were just beating any monkey who went for the bananas, and none of the monkeys even knew why that whole thing had started.

The scientists had essentially created a cultural behavior in the cage. Get on the ladder, guess what, you get beat up–why? Who cares and who knows.

If we could have interviewed one of the monkeys and asked them why they would beat any new monkey who came into their cage and got on the ladder we could infer that they’d say, “That’s the way we do things around here.”

“That’s the way we do things around here.”

Think about that and think about our offices and organizations. Have you seen behaviors like this before? Or, have you been the new person in a meeting that is surprised about something that’s happening in your office, and when you ask your co-worker or friends about it, they whisper and shake their head, “I dunno man, that’s just the way we do things.”

I’ve seen it before, I’ve been the guy who’s gotten beat up and the guy who has delivered the beating. Sometimes I know exactly why and who, but lots of times I’ve just been one of the monkeys who got taught the hard way.

I think that this sort of thing can be good or bad. Some organizations have great habits and values–and we are lucky to have those behaviors ingrained in the fabric of the office. But sometimes there are habits that aren’t as good and noble, but we still end up doing them, just because.

We should challenge the group and organizational habits that we come across that don’t resonate with our internal dialogues and values. It takes real courage to stand up and tell others that something isn’t right, especially when those others are our new co-workers, bosses, or whomever. Remember, that’s why organizations need people who are operating with their eyes wide open and not afraid to challenge the status quo.

As leaders, and responsible citizens of the cultures we are a part of; I believe it’s our duty to make them better by participating and providing honest and open feedback when we see something wrong. Yes, it takes courage and we might get beat up, but that’s what leaders do, we lead.