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Parable of the Monkeys -- The Persistence of Organizational Culture

Do you have a "problem group" of employees? A department, a team, a division that just doesn't conform to the cultural values you're promoting? At a recent Chief Executive Boards International meeting, a member described a small group of employees that had a history of discontent, attitude issues and a general lack of teamwork.

This situation reminded me of the parable of the monkeys -- told first to me by a member of the Chicago CEBI Board. It happened that there were three monkeys in a cage. Suspended at the top if the cage was a bunch of bananas. There was a ladder from the floor of the cage up to the bananas. One of the monkeys who was both clever and agile and also liked bananas, decided to head up the ladder to grab a banana.

Imagine his surprise (not to mention that of the other two monkeys) when suddenly a fire hose washed down the cage, blasting all three monkeys over to one side. Cold and shivering, the 3 monkeys regrouped and thought about what had happened.

Monkeys don't have a real long memory, and after awhile a second monkey thought again about the bananas and headed up the ladder. Same thing -- a fire hose washed all three monkeys over to the side of the cage. They picked themselves up, shook themselves off, and hoped the sun would come out to warm them up.

After another couple of hours, the third monkey couldn't resist, and he went for it. Sure enough, same result -- fire hose, wet monkeys, and another miserable afternoon of drying out.

Finally, all three monkeys became convinced that going for the bananas was a bad idea, and went on with the rest of their lives.

Then the zookeeper drafted one of the monkeys for another exhibit and replaced him with a new monkey. The new monkey arrived, looked up at the bananas, looked over at the ladder and couldn't figure out why the other monkeys hadn't gone for the bananas. He headed for the ladder and got about 1 rung up when the remaining "experienced" monkeys tackled him, dragged him to the floor and pummeled him into submission. He quickly concluded that climbing the ladder wasn't a good idea.

A week later, the zookeeper replaced the second monkey. Monkeys are somewhat single-minded. The new monkey spied the bananas, headed for the ladder, and the remaining two monkeys tackled him and pummeled him into submission.

Finally the third monkey was replaced and, you guessed it, the same thing happened. So life went on among the monkeys and after some time the first of the "new" monkeys was replaced with yet another monkey. Sure enough, the new guy saw the bananas, went for the ladder, and his two peers tackled him and beat him into submission.

Why was that? None of these monkeys knew anything about the fire hose. None of them had ever gotten wet for having climbed the ladder in the quest for bananas. Yet the monkeys had been fully culturalized to know that it was a bad idea. And you could likely go on individually replacing monkeys one at a time forever, and expect the same result.

The only solution to this problem, if it is one, is to replace all the monkeys with those who don't know the existing culture.

Think about it -- isn't organizational culture really a hand-me-down process? New employees come in and are quickly assimilated into the dominant system of beliefs, values and ideals. If those match yours, it's great. If they don't, it's tough to change, and your wishes or hopes won't get you there.

What ideas, assumptions and values are inadvertently communicated to people new to your organization that you'd prefer weren't? What would you have to do to intervene? Replace all the monkeys? Or something equally aggressive to disrupt the status quo? Click "comment" below and let us know your experiences in overcoming persistent organizational culture. At a recent Chief Executive Boards International meeting, a member was troubled by the fact that his day was constantly interrupted by employees, either in person or by cell phone, asking him for decisions.

Do you hear your key managers (or yourself) saying "I wish my employees would think for themselves" or "Most of my time is taken with answering questions I shouldn't have to answer"? These are symptoms of the "Answer Man" syndrome. It causes unnecessary interruptions, emails and phone calls and causes many managers undue frustration, distraction and stress.

What's the "syndrome" part? These are behaviors, and the manager (or yourself) is the "enabler" and reinforcer of these behaviors. The employees think that's what you want. The reasons are classic symptoms of "co-dependency". Consider the root causes:

  • When an employee comes to a manager with a question and the manager instantly answers, the employee has successfully upward-delegated responsibility for the outcome. It's no longer his issue -- he's just doing what his manager told him to do. Employees love this.
  • The manager's ego and self-esteem is enhanced by being seen (by both himself and others) as "The Answer Man". This can be a rewarding, fulfilling and self-affirming role for not only managers but also the classic "Go-to Guy" in an organization. Have you made yourself the "Go-to Guy"?

The problem with this co-dependency is obvious, particularly to the business owner or manager who wishes his business was growing and that he was spending less time working in the business and more time working on the business. The business becomes throttled by the capacity of the "Go-to-Guy" to decide everything.

How do you break this cycle? Simple. Practice this. Look for times and places to use this. The next time you get a question that an employee should be able to answer for himself, stop (this is the only hard part). Instead of answering the question, just say: "Jack, what would you have done if I hadn't been here (or available or answered the phone, etc.)?" Chances are, the answer will be close enough -- at least 80% as good as what you'd have said.

Then, you have two great opportunities -- motivation and coaching. Grab the motivation part by complimenting the employee profusely, to the point of his embarrassment (even better if others are present). Say "Jack that's a great plan, I knew you'd have a good idea, and I love it when you figure things out and just go get them done."

If you need to apply some "course correction" or you're still compelled to improve on Jack's plan, start that sentence with "and", not "but". Such as "And you could also ........" This reinforces, rather than negates ("but" is a negative, as in "rebuttal") Jack's self-esteem. It's coaching rather than criticism. Sooner or later, Jack will figure it out -- that you're not going to "play" and he's going to have to get his job done on his own.

Give this a try for a week. Then another week, until it becomes habit. Let me know how it works for you.


Terry Weaver
Chief Executive Boards International
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