What wet monkeys can teach us about culture shift

Inspired by a really interesting conversation with a friend, I’m pondering on what creates a cultural shift in an organisation.   While a culture shift will be catalysed by and affected by many, many factors, the impact of values on such a shift is giving me pause for thought.

To me, the word ‘culture’ very simply conjures up ‘how we do things around here’.  This would apply to a nation, an ethnic group, a family group or an organisation.  Every group has a culture, or a set of things that happen, and underlying these are a set of values.  Values, being the drivers of attitudes and behaviours, are sometimes unconscious, however they still shape the cultural norms; they are they ‘why we do things’, if you like.

So I’m reminded of the story of the wet monkeys…..Put three monkeys in a cage; suspend a bunch of bananas from the middle of the cage, with a step ladder underneath; when the first monkey goes up the ladder towards the bananas, someone outside the cage hoses all the monkeys down with ice cold water;  keep doing this every time a monkey goes for the bananas, so they learn that ‘it’s important not to go for the bananas here’…..now take one monkey out and put in a fresh one…..by now the value is in place-‘it’s important not to go for the bananas here’.  So when the new monkey goes for the bananas, you won’t have to hose them with water, the other two monkeys will simply attack-‘WE DON’T DO THINGS LIKE THAT HERE’.  The fresh monkey will not understand why, but will quickly learn that ‘it’s important not to go for the bananas here’.  Take another of the original monkeys out and place another fresh one.  This time, when the fresh monkey goes for the bananas, even the one who wasn’t hosed with water will attack because he knows that ‘it’s important not to go for the bananas here’.  Repeat this until all that are in the cage are monkeys who have not been hosed with water.  They will still follow the cultural norm of ‘not going for the bananas’.  They don’t know why-they just don’t.  See how values can be unconscious and still be strong drivers of behaviour?

So if you want to create a cultural shift in your organisation, how do you get that to happen?  I reckon it comes by creating a picture of the new culture you are trying to create and drilling down to the values that will drive that culture.  Say you want to shift to a more ‘customer oriented culture’.  Simply asking people to do some things differently may not create that real, deep cultural shift.  Bring out the values (for example, one could be ‘it’s important to know what our customers think and feel about us’) and let people explore whether they can opt into those values.  You may lose some people, but others will come on board who are aligned with the values of your new paradigm….which is what you want, isn’t it?

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