The way we do things round here

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An organisation’s culture has been defined as “the particular set of values, beliefs, customs and systems that are unique to that organisation” (Burnes, 2004). The culture can be hard to put into words, but over time, you come to know it and recognise it as an employee, a customer or any other stakeholder in a company.

A tutor from the Open University related the following tale to me. Some researchers built a large cage. High up in the cage, they hung a bunch of bananas on a hook. Underneath the bunch of bananas they built a set of steps. They then introduced several monkeys into the cage. After a short while, one of the monkeys decided to climb the stairs to reach the bananas. On this cue, the researchers sprayed all the other monkeys with cold water. This was repeated whenever a monkey climbed the steps to get the fruit. It didn’t take long before the monkeys prevented any other monkey from trying to get a banana.

This lesson learnt, the researchers removed one of the monkeys and replaced it with a new one. The new monkey made a bid to reach the banana and was instantly attacked by all the others. The new monkey quickly learnt that going for the bananas was dangerous and forbidden.

One at a time, the original monkeys were replaced with new monkeys. The new recruits quickly learned the routine. Don’t go for the bananas. You’ll get hurt. They also learnt to attack any new members introduced into the group who climbed the steps. Eventually, all the original monkeys that had been sprayed with the cold water had been removed. But still, no monkey reached for the bunch of bananas. They had absolutely no idea why they weren’t reaching for them, but the message had been received loud and clear that this was ‘just the way we do things round here’.

Culture is the unwritten code of behaviour within an organisation. Sometimes it takes a brave soul to stand back, observe, and ask the obvious question, “Why?”. If it no longer makes sense, it’s time for a change.

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