Don’t Touch Those Bananas

A group of primate researchers some years ago performed a now-famous experiment with a group of rhesus macaques (a pretty common species of monkey used in numerous animal research labs). It’s uncertain what the experiment was initially designed to test, but the results have become oft-referenced in social literature.

The researchers stuck a group of monkeys in a closed room with a tall pole in the center of the room. The pole had a bunch of bananas attached to the top. The monkeys which, of course, enjoy bananas and were easily capable of climbing a pole to reach the tasty snack, immediately began to climb the pole.

But any time a monkey would begin to climb the pole, the researchers would blast the climber with a stream of high-pressure water from a fire hose, knocking the monkey to the floor. This went on for just a while, but the monkeys, being pretty smart creatures, realized pretty quickly that climbing that pole was only going to result in a pretty crummy experience.So they stopped. After just a little while, the monkeys settled into a routine that effectively ignored the pole with the bananas on top. No huge surprise there.Then the researchers decided to replace one of the monkeys in the room with a new monkey, one who had not been subject to the startling discomfort brought on by the dreaded fire hose. The new monkey, of course, noticed the bananas almost immediately and, as expected, began to climb the pole.

This time, though, the researchers didn’t need to get out the fire hose; the other monkeys in the room did the job for them! They gathered around the pole and, collectively, yanked the new monkey back to the ground! The monkeys in the room who’d had the traumatic fire hose experience were now keeping new monkeys, who weren’t subject to the same experience, from climbing the pole.

Who knows why they did it; maybe it was some noble monkey credo that has something to do with “protecting our fellow monkeys from things that might hurt them”, or perhaps it was a more base response–namely, if I can’t have the bananas, neither can you. It doesn’t really matter; the point is, they carried on the “can’t touch the bananas” tradition.

The the researchers got another bright idea: they decided to replace ANOTHER of the original monkeys and they observed similar, but perhaps more interesting, results: the original monkeys and, now, the first replacement monkey (who’d been yanked off the pole repeatedly by his peers) together proceeded to pull the new arrival from the pole every time he tried to climb it.

And this went on; the researchers, one by one, would replace one of the original monkeys with a new, oblivious monkey and, every time, the results were the same: the entire group would band together to keep the newbie from reaching those bananas. All this without a single “reminder” blast of the old fire hose!

And then came the most fascinating experience of all: the researchers realized that only one of the monkeys in the room was from the original group; he was the only one who’d experienced the fire hose. “What will happen,” they wondered, “if we remove that guy? Will the whole thing break down? Will we have to get out the fire hose again?”

You, by now, probably know the answer to that. They replaced that last guy with a new monkey and, now, not a single monkey in the room had ever experienced that annoying fire hose. Yet the result was the same: when the new monkey tried to climb the pole, the group rallied around and pulled him down. And the pole went unclimbed, and the bananas went uneaten!

So what does this have to do with your organization? Well there are two important lessons here, I think. First, if you’re a leader in your organization (whether by title or by expertise–and MANY of us are leaders in numerous ways), recognize that your actions send a very loud message to those you lead. A few “blasts from the fire hose” from you, and those who follow you will adjust their behavior accordingly but, more importantly, they’ll enforce that behavior with their colleagues. That’s what we call culture: it’s something that’s embedded deep within the organization, and it’s very hard to change.

Which brings me to the second, and perhaps most important, lesson here: your power to influence and perpetuate culture. With the group of monkeys, it quickly became a cultural taboo to try to reach those bananas. And that cultural taboo was reinforced over and over again by every monkey in that room, even past the point where all of the “old-timers” who actually knew WHY the bananas were bad had “passed on”, and all that were left were the newbies, who only knew that THEY’D been yanked down from the pole. And yet they perpetuated that cultural taboo; they reinforced it vehemently.

You are the culture in your organization, no matter who you are. And what you choose to reinforce is what will become the norm. The thing is, often it’s so easy to just go with the status quo, to accept that “it’s just the way we’ve always done it”.

Perhaps, in your case, the “way we’ve always done it” includes a massive hierarchy, with miles and miles of red tape; or perhaps your “untouchable” bunch of bananas is a person who is a tyrant but who is mysteriously accepted. Regardless the actual situation, whether you like it or not, you will be a part of perpetuating that thing in your organization, or changing it; it’s unavoidable.

So, ask yourself these questions: first, in those areas where I’m a leader, am I using the fire hose in the right areas, or am I sending the wrong messages? And, second, as a participant in my organization, am I just becoming “one of the monkeys” and allowing the messed up parts of our culture to simply persist, or am I constantly doing my part to change the things that need to be changed, and reinforce the things that need reinforcement?

- Originally published by The Self-Management Institute on October 21, 2009.