Organizational Culture and the 5 Monkeys Experiment

Have you ever heard the story of the 5 Monkeys Experiment? It may sound familiar when you think of your organizational culture. It goes like this:

capuchin monkey in a cage

5 monkeys were placed in a cage as part of an experiment. In the middle of the cage was a ladder with bananas on the top rung. Every time a monkey tried to climb the ladder, the experimenter sprayed all of the monkeys with icy water. Eventually, each time a monkey started to climb the ladder, the other ones pulled him off and beat him up so they could avoid the icy spray. Soon, no monkey dared go up the ladder.

The experimenter then substituted one of the monkeys in the cage with a new monkey. The first thing the new monkey did was try to climb the ladder to reach the bananas. After several beatings, the new monkey learned the social norm. He never knew “why” the other monkeys wouldn’t let him go for the bananas because he had never been sprayed with ice water, but he quickly learned that this behaviour would not be tolerated by the other monkeys.

One by one, each of the monkeys in the cage was substituted for a new monkey until none of the original group remained. Every time a new monkey went up the ladder, the rest of the group pulled him off, even those who had never been sprayed with the icy water.

By the end of the experiment, the 5 monkeys in the cage had learned to follow the rule (don’t go for the bananas), without any of them knowing the reason why (we’ll all get sprayed by icy water). If we could have asked the monkeys for their rationale behind not letting their cage mates climb the ladder, their answer would probably be: “I don’t know, that’s just how its always been done.”

This story, whether real or a fable, captures a pervasive theme in many organizational cultures: We tend to do things the way we’re told they’ve always been done without questioning or revisiting the reason behind it, even long after that reason ceases to exist.

Do you feel like a caged monkey in your current work environment? Here’s some advice as it relates to organizational culture: Next time someone tells you “that’s not how we do things”, ask them why. If they can’t tell you, tell them about the 5 monkeys!