Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Parable of the Monkeys -- The Persistence of Organizational Culture

Do you have a "problem group" of employees? A department, a team, a division that just doesn't conform to the cultural values you're promoting? At a recent Chief Executive Boards International meeting, a member described a small group of employees that had a history of discontent, attitude issues and a general lack of teamwork.

This situation reminded me of the parable of the monkeys -- told first to me by a member of the Chicago CEBI Board. It happened that there were three monkeys in a cage. Suspended at the top if the cage was a bunch of bananas. There was a ladder from the floor of the cage up to the bananas. One of the monkeys who was both clever and agile and also liked bananas, decided to head up the ladder to grab a banana.

Imagine his surprise (not to mention that of the other two monkeys) when suddenly a fire hose washed down the cage, blasting all three monkeys over to one side. Cold and shivering, the 3 monkeys regrouped and thought about what had happened.

Monkeys don't have a real long memory, and after awhile a second monkey thought again about the bananas and headed up the ladder. Same thing -- a fire hose washed all three monkeys over to the side of the cage. They picked themselves up, shook themselves off, and hoped the sun would come out to warm them up.

After another couple of hours, the third monkey couldn't resist, and he went for it. Sure enough, same result -- fire hose, wet monkeys, and another miserable afternoon of drying out.

Finally, all three monkeys became convinced that going for the bananas was a bad idea, and went on with the rest of their lives.

Then the zookeeper drafted one of the monkeys for another exhibit and replaced him with a new monkey. The new monkey arrived, looked up at the bananas, looked over at the ladder and couldn't figure out why the other monkeys hadn't gone for the bananas. He headed for the ladder and got about 1 rung up when the remaining "experienced" monkeys tackled him, dragged him to the floor and pummeled him into submission. He quickly concluded that climbing the ladder wasn't a good idea.

A week later, the zookeeper replaced the second monkey. Monkeys are somewhat single-minded. The new monkey spied the bananas, headed for the ladder, and the remaining two monkeys tackled him and pummeled him into submission.

Finally the third monkey was replaced and, you guessed it, the same thing happened. So life went on among the monkeys and after some time the first of the "new" monkeys was replaced with yet another monkey. Sure enough, the new guy saw the bananas, went for the ladder, and his two peers tackled him and beat him into submission.

Why was that? None of these monkeys knew anything about the fire hose. None of them had ever gotten wet for having climbed the ladder in the quest for bananas. Yet the monkeys had been fully culturalized to know that it was a bad idea. And you could likely go on individually replacing monkeys one at a time forever, and expect the same result.

The only solution to this problem, if it is one, is to replace all the monkeys with those who don't know the existing culture.

Think about it -- isn't organizational culture really a hand-me-down process? New employees come in and are quickly assimilated into the dominant system of beliefs, values and ideals. If those match yours, it's great. If they don't, it's tough to change, and your wishes or hopes won't get you there.

What ideas, assumptions and values are inadvertently communicated to people new to your organization that you'd prefer weren't? What would you have to do to intervene? Replace all the monkeys? Or something equally aggressive to disrupt the status quo? Click "comment" below and let us know your experiences in overcoming persistent organizational culture.

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Terry Weaver

Chief Executive Boards International
864 527-5917

Chief Executive Boards International: Freedom for business owners & CEOs -- Less Work, More Money, More Freedom to enjoy it


  1. Its great article ..But its not solution to replace all the monkeys because you know where is requirement of development..




  2. The solution, is to re-train all three monkeys at one time to undersatnd there is a positive reward. This may take many small steps to correct what 3 steps created.


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