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Is your Organization Like a Group of Monkeys?

Some years ago there was a study which investigated a groups’ impact on the  behaviour of individuals within a specific group. A group of monkeys were housed in a large cage. In this cage the investigating scientists hung a large quantity of bananas. A surveillance camera was installed to capture the moment when a monkey might close in on the fruit. When that happened, all monkeys in the cage were automatically soaked in cold water from sprinklers.

wb051284In the beginning the monkeys took some bananas and were consequently sprayed with cold water. They then all ran around very upset by the fact that they were cold and wet. After a while they figured out that the cold water was a direct result of taking a banana. There were still individuals that saw the fruit and were attracted by it and still wanted to take it. Other individuals then tried to stop the ones who attempted to take bananas, as they did not want to be sprayed with cold water again. Eventually the whole group  agreed not to take the “forbidden” fruit.

The scientists then replaced some of the monkeys in the cage with different ones. The new individuals saw the bananas and immediately wanted to grab them, but were stopped by the rest of the group. The new monkeys did not understand why, but after a while they complied with the rules of the group. The scientists then replaced more individuals and the same thing happened. After a while all the monkeys in the group had been replaced by new ones. Then an amazing thing happened, when the last ones to arrive tried to reach for the bananas they were stopped by the rest of the group, even though none of them had experienced any cold water! They did not know why the bananas were off limits, but they knew that they were.

The same thing happens in our organizations. There are things going on that are a heritage and consequence of past events. Maybe there was some meaning to it in the beginning, but that has now long gone. People persist in certain behaviour patterns because it has “always” been that way. When I help organizations I find a lot of these instances, and as an outsider, they are easier to identify and it is easier to ask why they are still done. This is harder for someone from inside the organization.

There is also another, more troublesome issue connected to the monkey example. In organizations there are not only actions that are nonsensical, but also behaviour and thought patterns. They are much harder to identify and also harder to change. It is as if the whole spirit of the organization is contaminated with now redundant patterns inherited from the past. When people act in a certain way without realising it and there is not the power to change it, we have a real problem.

I have, for example, seen organizations where complaining is deeply rooted. When new people become part of the organization, they are sucked into this negative mindset. It could be the management, the customers, the government or something else. It does not really matter what it is as long as they are able to continue complaining.

An important task for you, is to be observant of things that you and your organization do, that have long since been outdated. More importantly, look at what in your culture is a remnant from the old days, with different conditions?  Do you have any suggestions of how to counteract and identify these issues?


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To you and your organization’s excellence.