Ever hear that line before? Most of us have, and there’s research behind it. Harry Harlow was an American psychologist best known for his experiments on Rhesus monkeys. Here’s the story of one of his experiments .
The Monkey, Banana and Water Spray Experiment
5 monkeys are in a cage, a banana is hung from the ceiling and a ladder is placed underneath it. Immediately, one of the monkeys races towards the ladder to grab the banana. However, as soon as he starts to climb, the researcher sprays the monkey with ice-cold water as well as the other 4 monkeys.
When a second monkey tries to climb the ladder, the researcher again sprays the monkey with ice-cold water, as well as the other 4 watching monkeys. This is repeated again and again until they learn their lesson – climbing equals scary cold water for EVERYONE. So no one climbs the ladder.
Next the researcher replaces one of the monkeys with a new inexperienced one. As predicted, the new monkey spots the banana, and goes for the ladder. The other 4 monkeys, knowing the drill, jump on the new monkey and beat him up. The new monkey therefore learns “no going for the ladder and no banana period” without even knowing why. (The water hose has been removed and is no longer a threat.)
The process of switching out monkeys is repeated until none of the original 5 monkeys remains in the cage. The new monkeys never experience the icy water treatment and don’t know why they shouldn’t climb the ladder, yet each time a new monkey is introduced to the cage, it is beaten into submission. In effect, the “old” monkeys become the enforcers and caretakers of the “rule”, without even knowing its purpose. It’s just because “that’s the way we do things around here…”
Sounds silly doesn’t it --- but that’s how company policy begins. We become the enforcers and caretakers of the rule, without even knowing its purpose.
How many programs, initiatives and policies in your company are being carried out without an understanding of the original purpose? How about in your own backyard --- Compensation? Programs often exist because they met a need years ago. Likely that need has changed or no longer exists ---yet the program or policy remains.
Look at what your company offers and ask these questions:
1) Do you still pay all employees at the same market position when it may make more sense to have different market lines for some key/critical positions?
2) Look at your sales commission plans. In the last few years have all the salespeople reached or exceeded target? Do you think that might mean targets are set too low? Are commissions more of a “given” anymore?
3) Is the $50 gift card to Walmart the company’s had for the past 10 years really viewed as an appropriate award for “recognition”? Is it possible that with the influx of Gen Y employees in your company there may be other things that might be more appreciated?
4) Have you looked at your medical claims in aggregate to see what the biggest health issues are? Might it be a good idea to initiate some sort of wellness program geared to these particular health issues?
5) Given the last recession when many of your employees probably lost a good deal of their savings in the stock market, would it be a good idea for the company to offer retirement planning workshops to educate employees on some good ways to build up their retirement accounts?
We all need to be wary of relying on prior successes as an excuse to do what has worked in the past. In these fast-moving times, things change so quickly that it’s important to reevaluate and gain new perspectives.
Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions and challenge past practice . . . even if it’s your past practice.
Jacque Vilet, President of Vilet International, has over 20 years’ experience in Global Human Resources with major multinationals such as Intel, National Semiconductor and Seagate Technology. She has managed both local/ in-country national and expatriate programs and has been an expat twice during her career. Her true love is working with local national issues. Jacque has the following certifications: CCP, GPHR, HCS and SWP as well as a B.S. and M.S in Psychology and an MBA. She belongs to SHRM, Human Capital Institute and World at Work. Jacque been a speaker in the U.S., Asia and Europe, and is a regular contributor to various HR and talent management publications.