In 1966, a scientist called Stephenson ran an experiment named “Cultural Acquisition of a Specific Learned Response Among Rhesus Monkeys”*. Over time, other tests have been carried out and the methodology has been adjusted. In essence though, the experiment ran like this:
5 monkeys were placed in a large cage. High up at the top of the cage, well beyond the reach of the monkeys, was a bunch of bananas. Underneath the bananas was a ladder.
The monkeys immediately spotted the bananas and one started to climb the ladder. As he did, he was sprayed with cold water by the scientist. Then, all the other monkeys were sprayed also.
The monkey on the ladder scrambled off and all 5 sat for a time on the floor, wet, cold, and bewildered.
Soon, though, the temptation of the bananas was too great, and another monkey began to climb the ladder. Again, the scientist sprayed the ambitious monkey with cold water and all the other monkeys as well. When a third monkey tried to climb the ladder, the other monkeys, wanting to avoid the cold spray, pulled him off the ladder and beat him up.
Then, one monkey was removed from the cage and a new monkey was brought in. Spotting the bananas, he naively began to climb the ladder. The other monkeys pulled him down and beat him up.
What happened next is where it got pretty interesting.
The experimenter removed a second one of the original monkeys and replaced him with a new monkey. Again, the new monkey began to climb the ladder and, again, the other monkeys pulled him down and beat him up – including the monkey who had never been sprayed.
One by one the original monkeys were exchanged with new monkeys so by the end of the experiment, none of the original monkeys were left and yet, despite none of them ever experiencing the cold, wet, spray, they had all learned never to try and go for the bananas.
The ladder, and the bananas therefore, remained untouched.
If we consider how many businesses operate, there are several parallels that can be drawn here.
I’ve frequently observed management promoting innovative testing, only to then spray cold water on people and their ideas whenever someone tries something new. What follows, quite often, is business poison spreading throughout the organisation, with employees resisting the urge to take chances – even if they haven’t experienced the consequences of trying.
The learned helplessness is a significant cultural issue that, ironically, is often misinterpreted as being a ‘stable working environment’. The leaders who try to protect their positions of authority, intentionally keep the more creative thinkers at bay, by rewarding only those who operate without risk. This control mechanism is remarkably common and is, in my opinion, one of the best ways of enabling a company to be sub-standard. These are companies where one often hears statements like “That isn’t the way things are done around here” – mostly when nobody can actually articulate why that seems to be the case. Just as in the experiment, the original members have been switched out, but the existing ones still carry the behaviour forward – blindly driving the company into the ground through fear.
The real question is whether anything can be done about it.
Evidently this type of cultural issue originates from leadership. The willingness of leaders has to stretch beyond headlines and punchlines in the press. It has to stretch beyond motivational talks at away-days. It must stretch further than a few slides on a corporate deck, positioned to make others feel like innovation is “at the heart of the organisation”.
The opposite approach would be to award pro-active testing of new theories. I often ask leaders how they view risk, control and reward – not just in their mind, but in tangible ways. Ultimately, an ambitious person needs to find an organisation that encourages and rewards those that want to reach the top.
So, to our story about monkeys, it is worth noting that a later experiment involved a similar methodology but included electric shocks as opposed to water. In that experiment, even after the shocks were disabled and the monkeys were entirely free to access the bananas (but actually fought amongst themselves), one rogue monkey decided to break the routine and climb the ladder anyway.
That monkey took all the bananas for himself, and enjoyed them whilst looking down at the other 4 who had never considered that it was possible to make the climb.
I conclude it is unarguable that it is only by attempting to climb, that we open the chances of success.