Monday, February 14, 2011

Is the Banana Worth It?

     Although this experiment is attributed to Harry Harlow, a social psychologist, it is impossible to find the original research. But, since I am into metaphorical thinking, it suits my needs to use this metaphor to explain what is often seen in organizations when the question is asked “why are you doing this?”
     In this alleged research study, five monkeys were placed in a cage with stairs leading to a ripe banana. One monkey climbs the stairs to retrieve the banana, but hidden at the top of the stairs was a water spray which showered water over the monkey. So the monkey abandoned the attempt. Another monkey tried; it too was sprayed with water. Each monkey in turn tried, but each was doused and eventually gave up. The researchers turned off the water spray and removed one monkey from the cage, replacing it with a new one. The new monkey saw the banana and immediately tried to climb the stairs. However, to its horror, the other monkeys leapt up and stopped it.
     Over time the researchers removed and replaced all the original monkeys. However, every time a newcomer approached the stairs, the other monkeys stopped it from climbing up. None of the remaining monkeys had ever been sprayed, but still no monkey approached the stairs to reach the bananas. As far as they knew, that was the way it had always been done, and so the habit was formed.
     Of course, humans are so much more complex than our distant cousins but our behavior is sometimes just as predictable when it comes to problem solving in a group. And why is this? It is partially related to the influence of group culture on its members.. Edgar Schein offers a formal definition of group culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” In subgroups in organizations, the shared assumptions may be questioned by new comers as they are trying “get the banana”. However, because the old members in the group may not even remember why they are doing what they are doing, their response may be like the monkeys…they chastise the new member. After a while, the new member forms the same habits as the other group members and thus, the status quo is preserved.
     Preservation of the status quo is fine unless it interferes with how adaptive the group is to meeting challenges that are inferfering with progress toward new goals. If the same group of people always sit together in the cafeteria, no big deal! On the other hand, if this group fails to examine its own norm of denying group members the opportunity to share different perspectives or views during problem solving, this may be reinforcing a status quo that is not benefitting the group members or the organization. It is a lost opportunity for exploring new possibilities, learning, and innovative thinking.
     The surfacing and examination of assumptions supporting unacceptable behavior related to cultural conditioning is not for the weak or uncourageous. It requires some introspective  preparation including by asking yourself some hard questions like:
·       What difference will it make if I do challenge the status quo?
·       What are my intentions for challenging the status quo?
·       What outcomes do I expect?
·       What capabilities do I need to challenge the status quo?
·       Am I willing to change my behaviors if I expect a change to occur?
     The monkey and banana story is certainly a simplistic way of looking at rather complex human behaviors and change but it’s a great story to remember whenever we find our selves asking the question “why are we doing this?” and the response is something like “we have always done it like this!” Most of us know that just because we have always done soemthing in a certain way does not mean that it cannot be changed. However, we may first have to acknowledge how much do we really want to change or how much do we want the banana, what are we are willing to risk to get it, and do we have the courage to take the risks to get it. Somethimes we will get the banana on the first try and sometimes we will be sprayed with the water a number of times before we can grab it. Change is not easy but sometimes getting the banana is worth it!  Remember, not all who wander are lost!