A fable about Building Culture

There’s an ugly side of building a positive culture… and a fable can teach us what it takes and why many fail to do it.

The Fable

In an oft quoted fable, an experiment is led involving 5 monkeys and a banana hanging from the top of a cage with a ladder directly under it. When any of the 5 monkeys climb the ladder to retrieve the banana all 5 monkeys get sprayed with cold water as soon as the banana is touched. This is repeated until the monkeys no longer attempt to climb the ladder to get the banana. At this point one monkey is replaced with another who has never been sprayed and naturally attempts to obtain the banana. The other 4 monkeys, aware of the impending spray of cold water clamber to pull the monkey off the ladder to avoid being sprayed. Soon this monkey also stops trying to reach the banana and as soon as another monkey is traded out he joins the others in stopping the new monkey from climbing the ladder. This is repeated until none of the 5 monkeys have ever been sprayed and none of them attempt to get the banana without really knowing why.

While this experiment is a fable, and was originally intended to teach ‘learned helplessness’ and the pitfalls of ‘following the crowd, it also teaches a powerful lesson about building a culture.

What is Culture?

Edgar Shein of MIT defines culture as:

“a way of working together toward common goals that have been followed so frequently and so successfully that people don’t even think about trying to do things another way.”

He goes on to say “If a culture has formed, people will autonomously do what they need to do to be successful.” There are lots of perspectives floating out there about how to build culture and engagement, and why it’s so important and how good it is. Much of it is fluffy, and warm and safe. But most miss an important fact. To build the best culture you have to spray the monkeys. Building a culture that produces consistent positive behaviors that result in progress toward common goals takes the removal of poor behavior as much as it takes reinforcement of positive ones.

Want to build a positive culture?

  1. Get clear on what behaviors lead to the right outcomes and talk about these with your teams

  2. Get clear on what bad behavior really means and talk about how it hinders progress towards objectives

  3. Be RELENTLESSLY focused on eradicating bad behavior and REINFORCING good behavior.

If you want a team that does the right things, in the right way, at the right time then you have to make sure they know when it’s the wrong. Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School says to imagine that for every action a member of the team makes, that is the way it will happen all the time. Is that okay?

Culture happens no matter what. All you can do is hope to guide it. It’s a matter of how much effort you’re willing to put into it to make it a positive one.

Greer Method Complete Coaching provides one on one coaching for executives and business owners. Through expert coaches, habit locking technology, and proven processes we help leaders create, manage, and sustain personal and professional performance.

Jared J. Greer is the founder of Greer Method Complete Coaching. He is an executive coach, 6-time Ironman finisher, marathoner, ultra-marathoner, husband, and father of four.

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