Monkey See, Monkey Do: Learning Culture Through Observation

By Addam W.G. Marcotte, MSOD

There is a well-known story about a research experiment conducted using monkeys that highlights how cultural knowledge is transferred.  A brief summary of the story tells the key points:

Five monkeys were put in a large cage with some bananas hanging high from the roof of the cage and a ladder just below the bananas.  Whenever any of the monkeys attempted to climb the ladder the other monkeys were sprayed with ice-cold water.  They all quickly learned the association between climbing the ladder and the collective group punishment. None of them tried to climb the ladder anymore.

Then, one of the original five monkeys was replaced by a new monkey.  The new monkey tried to reach for the bananas.  Almost instantly the other four monkeys pounced on him until he stopped trying to climb the ladder.  The same process was repeated until the cage was populated by five completely new monkeys.  The results were consistent: Every new monkey introduced would try to climb the ladder and promptly be punished by the other monkeys, despite none of them having ever having been exposed to the icy water.

In this story, none of five new monkeys knew about the collective punishment of icy water, none knew why they are not allowed to climb the ladder, yet they had learned that climbing the ladder was not allowed.  They continued to reinforce this social rule without every knowing where it came from.  The same holds true to organizational culture and how employees learn “the way things are done around here.”

At FMG Leading, we define culture as the set of habitual and traditional ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving in an organization.  The key question then becomes, “how do new employees learn your organizational culture?”  Unfortunately, most cultural norms are taught to new employees through some form of punishment (e.g. negative feedback, criticism, ridicule, peer pressure, etc.).  The reason is simple.  When a new employee does something that is either socially accepted or expected, it is “normal” to everyone else and therefore no one really notices.  It’s only when behavior deviates from the norm that most people pay attention.

Rather than a “deviant model” of teaching organizational culture (i.e. learning what to do by being punished for what not to do), companies could proactively guide new employees to the desired behaviors of “how things are done around here”?  In order to do that, an organization must be able to very clearly and consistently describe their own culture – this goes beyond just job descriptions, mission statements, and performance expectations – this gets into the nitty-gritty of what is “normal” and “acceptable” behavior.  For example, how does your company handle personal phone calls during work hours?  In some companies this is no big deal and part of life.  In other companies it is strongly frowned upon.  How would a new employee know that?

The call for action here is two-fold: First, use a cultural framework to be able to understand and accurately describe your culture.  Second, rethink the way new hire orientation is conducted.  Rather than simply covering I-9 forms and direct deposit stubs, what if the bulk of new hire orientation was focused on teaching new employees about your specific culture and how to be successful in this place?  How many employee relations issues might be avoided by having a consistently described and taught organizational culture?

What “ladders” are in place in your organization that people are punished for trying to climb?  What could be made possible by more effectively and proactively teaching new employees about your culture?

For more information about how FMG Leading can help define and transform your organizational culture, call 714-628-2900714-628-2900 or visit