Leadership and the 5 monkeys parable

A supposed social science experiment that no one seems to recall in it’s original form but has nevertheless been recounted as fact for some time refers to five monkeys and their attempt to get at a bundle of bananas. Here is a paraphrase  of the experiment:

Researchers created a comfortable zoo-like habitat for five monkeys, in order to do an experiment. When the monkeys has sufficiently

adapted to their new home, and had forged some relationships, a bundle of bananas was presented to them, a treat they rarely had in ordinary feeding. To get to the bananas, the monkey would need to climb a ladder (or steps) to get to them.

On the first trial, the bananas were presented, and all five monkeys began to climb the ladder to get them. Once all of the monkeys were on the ladder, they were sprayed with ice-cold water, which scared and agitated them. They gave up on the bananas for a time. Later, the bravest of the bunch again mounted the ladder, and again they were hosed with water, all five of them, even the ones who had not tested the ladder.

The third time one of the monkeys went to mount the ladder, the other four became agitated and growled and pushed at the brave monkey until he gave up on trying to get to the ladder. The monkeys from then on reminded the others that to be on the ladder was a certain cold shower.

At some point, one of these monkeys was replaced with a new monkey, one who was not familiar with the habitat. Instinctively, he made for the ladder, and was immediately pushed and threatened by the others. He eventually gave up his quest for fear of being beaten by the others.

Eventually, a second new monkey had replaced an original. Interestingly, the first replacement, one who was never sprayed with water, joined the others in rebuking and threatening the newcomer as she tried to get to the bananas. The same phenomenon was observed as they replaced the third and fourth monkeys.

Finally, the researchers replaced the fifth monkey with a newcomer, making five monkeys in the habitat that had never been punished with cold water for climbing on the ladder. The new one, as expected, went to climb the ladder, and the other four, as before, screamed and threatened her until she gave up and went to do something else.

So, the conclusion is that in the end, the monkeys were upholding a social norm that they no longer connected to a logical consequence.

This story is often told in leadership and management classes to drive home the fear of falling into automated, “that’s just what we have always done here” sort of mentality. It is particularly relevant in schools. Here is how it might look in a high school:

The English department was formed in the early 1970’s as a population explosion happened in the area, sparked by a new hospital and school. The department, once employing only one teacher, now employed five, all hired within the course of a decade. All of them got along well, and shared a common educational philosophy. As the years moved on, there was little turnover, in fact no one was added to, or left, the department from 1979 until 1991. When that new teacher was hired, the group adopted the newcomer with open arms, and within months the new teacher’s methods and materials were nearly indistinguishable. The same events happen as the next two retire late in the decade. At the turn of the century, now three teachers in their early 30’s and two teachers near retirement remain. Still, as new initiatives and technology change education, the group still functions fairly monogamously. In 2005 the fourth of the original department retires, and in 2009, the fifth one retires. At the beginning of the 2010/2011 school year there are five teachers in the department who teach very much the exact same material and with the same methods as the 70’s group. When new initiatives are rolled out that year, the department balks, and resists change because for them, they had never seen any. The leadership becomes very frustrated by the outdated teaching practices and the resistance to change. As the year ends, on of the teachers leaves for maternity, and another new teacher joins the group. At this point, her new ideas are quashed by the other four, none of whom had been in the department when the methods employed were developed. 

How does leadership deal with a scenario such as this? How can the culture of past practice be changed into a culture of innovation? How can outdated models be changed without changing personnel? Please comment and share.





2 thoughts on “Leadership and the 5 monkeys parable

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s