Corporate Culture: Can you undo “Monkey See, Monkey Do?”

January 21st, 2013

A classical experiment by the late Harry Harlow, Professor, Department of Psychology University of Wisconsin, exemplifies how corporate cultures evolve.

Briefly, here is what Harlow did…

He locked 5 monkeys in a cage, hung a banana from the ceiling and placed a ladder underneath it.  Immediately, one of the monkeys raced towards the ladder to grab the banana. However, as soon as the monkey started to climb, a researcher sprayed the monkey with ice cold water. In addition, he also sprayed the other four monkeys.

As each of the other monkeys tried to climb the ladder, the researcher sprayed the monkeys with ice-cold water.  This was repeated again and again until they learned their lesson:  Climbing equals the ice cold water treatment for everyone!.  So, in relatively short order, none of the monkeys would attempt to climb the ladder.

Now, here is the interesting aspect of the experiment:
Once the five monkeys knew the drill, one of the monkeys was replaced with a new inexperienced one. As soon as the new money started for the ladder, the other four jumped on the new monkey and beat it up. The new monkey learned quickly—NO going for the ladder and NO banana—and that monkey wasn’t even sprayed with ice water.

The experiment got repeated with three more times, each time with a new monkey.  ASTONISHINGLY each new monkey—one who had never received the cold-water spray (and didn’t even know anything about it), would join in the beating of the new one.  Eventually, all the monkeys had been replaced and none of the original ones (those that had been sprayed by water) were left in the cage.

Again, one monkey was removed and a new monkey was introduced into the cage. It ran toward the ladder only to get beaten up by the others. The monkey turns with a curious face asking “Why do you beat me up when I try to get the banana?”  The other four monkeys stopped and looked at each other puzzled (none of them had been sprayed and so they really had no clue why the new guy can’t get the banana) but it didn’t matter, it was too late, the rules had been set. And so, although they didn’t know WHY, they beat up the monkey – based on B. S – Belief Systems.   They had formed their beliefs based on the behaviors of others which were driven by events that they hadn’t even experienced.  They simply accepted “that’s the way we do things around here.”

As leaders, we need to constantly ask ourselves:

How am I spraying ice cold water on employees?  What am I saying or doing that thwarts their efforts?  What have I been told I do that demeans, de-motivates or diminishes people’s climb?

How are people here imposing their B. S. on other’s (jumping on them in an attempt to “protect them” from being punished)?

What do I need to do to undo the “monkey see, monkey do” syndrome?

What highly visible behavior must I demonstrate that will change people’s B. S?

What do I need my direct reports to do/not do to change the culture?

How can I monitor progress toward building a new culture?

What kinds of rewards/recognition/reinforcement will contribute to the desired culture?