Don’t Touch the Bananas


I learned a lot of my meagre organisational design and development skills through the mentorship of a great friend, Tim Dalmau.

Tim has taught many of the world’s great company leaders about how cultures really work. He teaches that cultures lie deep within all organisations. They are immensely hard to alter. This is because altering them involves trying to meddle with their identities: who they are, what their meaning in life is and so on.

From this perspective “Culture Change” and “Business Transformation” programs can be seen for what they really are: attempts to change practices but which won’t alter the underlying culture in any enduring way.

Just how hard it is to “change” cultures can be seen from the famous Apes In The Cage experiment, reported widely some years ago.

The research involved putting a monkey in a cage with a bunch of bananas. The monkey grabbed bananas and ate them, until the bunch was electrified. The monkey of course recoiled, tried again, got a shock and eventually sat in the corner. Another monkey was added. The first one tried to stop the second one from doing what monkeys do: eat the bananas. Eventually the second one touched the bananas and of course got a shock. It retreated too.

Then a third monkey was added and the first two succeeded in preventing the third from touching the bananas at all.

A fourth was added. The first three also stopped the fourth. (Just to recap: we now have two monkeys that have had direct experience of the shock and one that hasn’t but joins in transmitting the knowledge of the first two to the fourth monkey.)

Then they take the first out and add a fifth. Same story: don’t touch the bananas.

Then they take out the remaining monkeys one by one, adding in new monkeys, in the meantime having turned off the shock. No new monkeys touch the bananas, even though every instinct tells them to!

The experiment shows how culture is created, how it survives and how pervasive it is. It doesn’t intuitively matter that the research was later found not to be real, because we can all relate to experiences from real life in organisations that back up the “research.”

Tim also teaches that for every complex problem there is usually a simple solution…and it is usually wrong! It would be tempting to think that the Volkswagen debacle can be explained in simple terms. However, I can’t help but think that underneath all the duplicity, lying, fear, cover-ups, insincere apologies and the like there lies a cultural basis for what happened. Somewhere in the early history of that great company, someone in leadership experienced a lack of integrity in his dealings with others. That so called leader “taught” others that it was OK not to be true to one’s word, presumably if it served the company’s financial goals. And so the culture of “espoused integrity” but “no-integrity-in-action” has continued to the present day.

Regular posters to blogs lament these kinds of cultures and practices in modern workplaces. Organisational leaders who want to tap wisdom need organisational design and development advice that goes to the deep roots of how organisations really run.

The Leadership Foundation is Brisbane-based and runs events where leaders explore the implications of these great kinds of issues for their own leadership. In a safe environment, leaders develop their understanding of how leadership actually works and how to navigate potentially explosive situations like the Volkswagen case, before they happen. You are most welcome to join us.

By Ian Sampson : Ian is a Cause & Effective Associate. If you are facing obstacles as an executive, CEO or Director contact Ian for a no-obligation exploratory chat about how coaching can offer new ways forward.

About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

Thats our take on things. Over to you, please add to the discussion.

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