How Corporate Policies Make Monkeys of Us All

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Scientists are always dreaming up new ways to study behavior, and monkeys bear the brunt of the experiments. One study epitomizes how workplace behavior becomes ingrained. In this experiment, five monkeys are in a cage. A banana is hung from the ceiling and a ladder is placed underneath it.  Immediately, one of the monkeys races towards the ladder to grab the banana.  However, as soon as he starts to climb, the researcher sprays the monkey with ice-cold water along with the other four monkeys.

When a second monkey tries to climb the ladder, the researcher again sprays the monkey with ice-cold water, as well as the other four watching monkeys. This is repeated again and again until they learn their lesson – climbing equals scary cold water for EVERYONE.   So no one climbs the ladder.

Next the researcher replaces one of the monkeys with a new inexperienced one. As predicted, the new monkey spots the banana, and goes for the ladder. The other four monkeys, knowing the drill, jump on the new monkey and beat him up. The new monkey therefore learns “no going for the ladder and no banana” without even knowing why.   (The water hose has been removed and is no longer a threat.)

The process of switching out monkeys is repeated until none of the original five monkeys remains in the cage. The new monkeys never experience the icy water treatment and don’t know why they shouldn’t climb the ladder, yet each time a new monkey is introduced to the cage, it is beaten into submission. In effect, the monkeys become the enforcers and caretakers of the “rule” without even knowing its purpose.    It’s because “that’s the way we do things around here…” Sound familiar?

Ferdinand Fournies, author of “Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed to Do… and What to Do about It,” says one of the reasons employees don’t take initiative is that they get punished for it. The employee who suggests a new idea automatically gets put in charge of it. The worker who tries something new gets punished when it doesn’t go as planned. The team member who does difficult work well always gets the difficult work while the less competent worker gets the easy assignments. You’ve probably seen it all.

Eventually, workers, like monkeys, get the picture. Doing something different or trying to get ahead gets you punished. We’re hard wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure, so we eventually stop doing whatever caused our discomfort. And we “help” our teammates by telling them what to avoid as well.

This explains so many otherwise inexplicable behaviors. The experienced line worker who tells the new guy “don’t work so fast – you’re making the rest of us look bad.” The government office that spends all its money on unnecessary items at the end of the fiscal year because whatever is unspent will be automatically deducted from next year’s budget.

When companies create policies that are designed around bad actors (or the fear of bad actors), good workers, which make up the majority of your team, feel punished as well. For example, companies that designate sick leave create, at best, a mixed message. Sick leave is for genuine medical issues: doctor appointments, days you’re too unwell to work, staying home with a sick child. You’re allotted a certain number of days, but taking them all is considered abuse of the system. On the other hand, when you don’t use all your days, you lose them, either at the end of the year or when you leave the company (as opposed to vacation days, which are paid out when you resign.)

I wonder what the monkeys would make of a policy like that.


1 thought on “How Corporate Policies Make Monkeys of Us All

  1. mattissimo

    Excellent post and very effective means of showing what we have all done or experienced. Thanks for sharing!


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