How important is it to understand context? I don’t know anyone (well, maybe a few who aren’t worth knowing) who’d say that it’s NOT important to ask questions. But in practice, it just doesn’t really pan out that way.
Then for the umpteenth time, I’ve come across this post on “How Corporate Policy Is Made”. The original author of this post (not the study, which we’ll get into later) will probably never be known. This thing has been viral before we’ve started using the word viral that way.
Ok, I admit, this post is a huge cop out. But the way I see it, if it helps drive the point home, then it’s all good.
How Corporate Policy Is Made
“Start with a cage containing five monkeys.
Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water.
After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result – all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.
Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him.
After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.
Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked.
Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.
After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been done round here.
And that, my friends, is how company policies are made.”
I’m sure by now, you’ve thought up of dozens of situations where you’ve felt this can apply to something that’s happened to you. Incidentally, I’ve also seen the last line of this post modified to address religion and politics.
Did it happen?
Now as for the experiment itself, there has been some talk going around that this was all some fantasy cooked up by some anti-establishment smartass.
While that certainly would be believable, an experiment involving monkey culture and bananas similar to our little parable did happen. Whether or not you believe it’s applicable to real life management scenarios is up to you.
Quotation from the actual monkey experiment: (sources below)
“Stephenson (1967) trained adult male and female rhesus monkeys to avoid manipulating an object and then placed individual naïve animals in a cage with a trained individual of the same age and sex and the object in question.
In one case, a trained male actually pulled his naïve partner away from the previously punished manipulandum during their period of interaction, whereas the other two trained males exhibited what were described as “threat facial expressions while in a fear posture” when a naïve animal approached the manipulandum.
When placed alone in the cage with the novel object, naïve males that had been paired with trained males showed greatly reduced manipulation of the training object in comparison with controls. Unfortunately, training and testing were not carried out using a discrimination procedure so the nature of the transmitted information cannot be determined, but the data are of considerable interest.”
Understood that? Great! Neither did I, but hopefully someone will clear that out in the comments. So long as we’re clear an experiment of that sort did happen.
Why “Whys” Are Necessary
Even if the parable did fudge a few things, the fact remains that it’s important for managers to ensure everyone gets it. According to ever unreliable hearsay( which again, I hope someone would clarify), the implications of the monkey experiment, true or not, is taken seriously in the United States Marine Corps.
You might think the Marines have an overriding concern in making sure people follow orders. But there’s a good reason why they insist everyone knows why some things are part of doctrine. Mindlessly following orders gets people killed.
Understanding rationales also prevents the wrong kind of “innovation” by helping Marines (and your employees) understand why something done contrary to doctrine may be a bad idea – or a good one. Surprisingly, explaining reasons behind policies also encourages obedience – if your employees do not see the rationale behind policy they are more inclined to disobey it.
Explaining policies is also a great way to get feedback from your employees. If no one believes in the reason behind a policy, then maybe it’s time you change it.
If you don’t ensure people in your business understand why things are done, perhaps the only way you might see any real change is if a new, muscle-bound, meth-addled monkey can outfight the other four.
Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288.
Mentioned in: Galef, B. G., Jr. (1976). Social Transmission of Acquired Behavior: A Discussion of Tradition and Social Learning in Vertebrates. In: Rosenblatt, J.S., Hinde, R.A., Shaw, E. and Beer, C. (eds.), Advances in the study of behavior, Vol. 6, New York: Academic Press, pp. 87-88: