Invisible Barriers

Often, at work there’s a way to do something. There’s the unspoken rules. The unwritten policy. The unofficial way of working. It reminds me of the story of the monkeys as an analogy for organisational policy design*

Start with a cage containing five monkeys.

Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it.

Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana.

As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the monkeys with cold water.

After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result – all the monkeys are sprayed with cold water.

Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, turn off the cold water.

Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one.

The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs.

To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him.

After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one.

The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked.

The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Again, replace a third original monkey with a new one.

The new one makes it to the stairs and is attacked as well.

Two of the four monkeys that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing the fourth and fifth original monkeys, all the monkeys that have been sprayed with cold water have been replaced.

Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs.

Why not?

Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been around here.

And that’s how company policy begins …

So what happens when you give permission for people to change? Let’s say we took away the spray, and encouraged the monkeys to reach for the bananas by placing them within easy reach independent of the stairs? They still won’t do it. A set of established rules and way of working has already been accepted. To change it is folly. Even when permission has been granted.

And let’s replace one of those monkeys with another new monkey. What would happen when the new monkey – who is blissfully unaware of repercussions just as the others had been – tries to reach for the bananas? He’ll get beaten down. A sad case of events.

That’s why it often takes someone external to the situation to be able to come in and say – why aren’t you acting differently? Why aren’t you doing what is within your control and power? And the responses of “I didn’t know I was allowed to”, “but we’ve always done it that way”, “that’s their responsibility not mine” suddenly all become myths that quickly unravel. All it takes is someone to say – you have permission to change.

*I unashamedly quoted this story from the businessballs.com site

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Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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