Written by Michelle Mook on . Posted in Sunflower Diaries

The recent news about the gorilla escaping from London Zoo reminded me of an experiment relating to culture that was carried out in the 1960s.

A researcher placed 5 monkeys into a large cage. At the top of the cage, a bunch of bananas was positioned with a ladder underneath. One monkey began to climb the ladder and as he did, the researcher sprayed all the moneys with cold water.

The monkey on the ladder scrambled off and all 5 sat for a time on the floor, wet and cold. Soon, the temptation of the bananas was too great, and another monkey began to climb the ladder. Again, the experimenter sprayed the monkeys with cold water. When a third monkey tried to climb the ladder, the other monkeys, wanting to avoid the cold spray, pulled him off the ladder and beat him.

Next one monkey was removed and a new monkey was introduced to the cage. Spotting the bananas, he began to climb the ladder. The other monkeys pulled him off and beat him.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The researcher removed a second one of the original monkeys from the cage and replaced him with a new monkey. Again, the new monkey began to climb the ladder and, again, the other monkeys pulled him off and beat him – including the monkey who had never been sprayed. Eventually all the monkeys were replaced. When a monkey tried to climb the ladder, the other monkeys pulled him off and beat him even though none of them have been sprayed with water. The monkeys have all learned never to try and go for the bananas, they have learned the behaviour that is not acceptable. This is how culture is learned; it’s about ‘how we do things around here’. If you think it doesn’t relate to humans, watch this recent experiment:

Managers and leaders may advocate the values and culture of the organization, but the culture is what happens in practice. It’s learned from what people see others doing and so is accepted as ‘how we do things around here’. Bananas can be a metaphor for other things in the workplace. If cold water is poured on people and their ideas, people learn to suppress innovation even if the values support innovation in theory. Do you know what the culture really is in your organization? Our employee engagement survey measures values and culture and helps you to understand whether the existing culture is helping your organisation to succeed. If it isn’t, we can help you to embed a new, more productive culture. A great way to start your journey is to understand your culture using our employee engagement survey. Click Here to find out more.

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