Corporate culture as illustrated by monkeys

I was talking to a friend tonight about organizational culture. She was wondering about how one can institutionalize or productize culture. And I laughed out loud. And she asked me why I thought it was so funny. So I thought for a second, and told the story of the five monkeys.

The story is that an experimenter puts five monkeys in a cage with a ladder, and a bunch of bananas at the top of the ladder. One of the monkeys spots the bananas and starts climbing the ladder. The experimenter sprays down the monkey with cold water, and all of the other monkeys in the cage for good measure. A few minutes pass, and another monkey starts climbing the ladder, and every monkey gets sprayed with cold water. Soon, whenever a monkey starts climbing the ladder, the others drag him down and beat him to prevent getting sprayed.

The interesting part of the experiment is that the experimenter then swapped out a monkey in the cage. When the new monkey arrives, they start climbing up the ladder…and get pulled down and beaten. Tries it again, gets beaten again. Then the experimenter swaps out another monkey. The new monkey starts climbing the ladder, and all the other monkeys (including the previous new one) start beating him up. The experimenter continues until all five monkeys are “new” (none have ever been sprayed by cold water) but still all of them beat up any monkey that dares to start climbing the ladder.

That is organizational culture. Humans are primates that learn behavior from observing and copying others. No matter what rules and processes an organization puts in place, what people actually learn is what they see others do. And they will do that even if they don’t know why that behavior started – it’s just the way things are done around here.

So the answer to how to create a great corporate culture is not about getting the right tools, or making the right rules, or designing the right processes. It is about getting people in early who demonstrate the desired behavior. You can nudge people to exhibit the desired behavior by choosing defaults wisely or designing careful incentives (or by spraying your employees with cold water, I suppose), but mostly, you want to find people who instinctively behave according to the culture you desire.

One last point to make here – there is no such thing as a “right” corporate culture. In a high-functioning organization, the culture should be aligned with the goals of the organization and with the people in that organization. But different organizations will have different goals and cultures. For instance, if you were designing a culture for a tax accounting company, you would want to emphasize following the rules, not skipping any steps, and always showing your work in excruciating detail. If you were designing a culture for an innovative and experimental product design organization, you would want to emphasize the exact opposite of those traits (“move fast and break things”). Neither culture is “right” … but you have to match the culture to what the organization is trying to do, and then find the people who exemplify that culture as your primate trendsetters.

So think about what your organization is aiming for – do you have a culture that is congruent with those goals? Are you hiring people who behave in ways that advance the organization towards those goals? If not, it’s time to consider how to bring goals, culture, incentives and people into alignment.

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