By Alan Graner
I am going to tell you a story.
Although this story is peppered throughout the Internet, no one knows where it originated or whether it is even real.
Decide for yourself.
The banana and five monkeys
Imagine a largish cage. Hanging from the top of the cage is a nice, ripe banana. A conveniently placed ladder lets you climb up and grab the banana.
Now enter five monkeys. (The type of monkey is, of course, disputed by many.) The monkeys are just lollying around when one of them spots the banana and thinks it would be a great idea to climb the ladder and grab it. Just as he touches the banana, hidden sprayers douse the remaining four monkeys with cold water.
A little while later a different monkey climbs the ladder, and again the four others are sprayed with cold water. When a third monkey attempts to climb the ladder, the other four attack him to prevent another dousing.
Then the experiment turns devious.
One of the original monkeys is replaced with a new one who, seeing the banana, thinks it a capital idea to grab it. As he begins his climb, he’s assaulted by the other four. Bewildered, he tries again and is again attacked. He has no idea why he’s being attacked, but he accepts the fact that climbing the ladder is simply not done here.
A second new monkey enters the cage to replace one of the original five. He, too, tries to climb the ladder and is immediately attacked. The first new monkey joins the others enthusiastically, even though he has no idea why he is attacking.
This process continues until all five of the original monkeys have been replaced. None of the new monkeys understands why they are not permitted to climb the ladder, but none questions he must attack anyone who tries.
According to Professor Freek Vermeulen, Associate Professor of Strategic & International Management at the London Business School:
“I got this story from my colleague, the illustrious Costas Markides. It reminded him—and me—of quite a few of the organisations we have seen. Over the years, all firms develop routines, habits and practices, which we call the firm’s “organisational culture”. As I am sure you know, these cultures can be remarkably different, in terms of what sort of behaviour they value and what they don’t like to see, and what they punish. Always, these habits and conventions have been developed over the course of many years. Very often, nobody actually remembers why they were started in the first place….Quite possibly, the guy with the water hose has long gone.
“Don’t just beat up the new monkey—whether it is a new employee, a recent acquisition or a partner; their questioning of ‘the way we do things round here’ may actually be quite a valid one.”
Serious experiment…or serious hoax
Dr Tuvia Melamed offers a more jaundiced view:
“If you are familiar with the 5 monkeys experiment, you may wonder just where it comes from. Who conducted this research, where, and when?
“In truth, many people have searched unsuccessfully for the true source of the research (including me!). The 5 monkeys experiment is widely cited; however, no source is ever given. The experiment is sometimes misattributed to Harry Harlow, who did indeed perform controversial studies on monkeys; however, no accurate source has been listed.
“To me, this seems to suggest that the entire 5 monkeys experiment is a hoax. Especially in the age of information, such a pivotal experiment would be widely cited in scientific journals, discussions, and experiments. However, no reputable source ever uses the 5 monkeys experiment as a reference.”
My question to you: real or not, do you think this story is valid critique of corporate cultures?
Image: Iwan Beijes
Alan Graner is Chief Creative Officer at Daly-Swartz Public Relations. He can’t help but wonder what happened to the banana. We can’t help with your corporate culture, but if you want to improve your corporate communications, email Jeffrey Swartz at firstname.lastname@example.org.