Welcome to the fifty-second issue of CEE News!
Can you relate to this story? Four monkeys are sitting in a cage staring at a bunch of bananas accessible only by steps hanging from the roof. Whenever the monkeys try to climb the steps to reach the bananas, a blast of cold water blocks them. After a few days, realizing there’s no point in trying to get the fruit, they naturally give up. Some humans then remove the water hose and replace one of the original monkeys with a new one.
On seeing the bananas, it starts up the steps, but the other monkeys pull it down before it gets blasted by water. The new monkey is confused, looks around, and tries repeatedly to scale the ladder, only to be repeatedly pulled back. Finally, the new monkey accepts the group code of conduct and abides by the unwritten rule: “you don’t grab the bananas around here.”
This management fable was popularized in the book Competing For The Future by Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad. I share it because it illustrates what happens when culture trumps common sense. If you’re planning to rollout training at any level in the workplace next year, keep this fable in mind. Will participants come out of the training committed to change only to be rejected by cultural antibodies?
Research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that leadership training gains the most traction within highly visible development efforts championed by senior leaders. That’s because such efforts motivate people to learn and change, create the conditions for them to apply what they’ve studied, foster immediate improvements in individual and organizational effectiveness, and put systems in place that help sustain the learning.
If you want your organization to benefit from learning and growth, take time to identify the unwritten cultural barriers to change. Is the resistance coming from what’s often referred to as “the frozen middle”—a change-resistant layer of middle managers? Is the resistance looking back at you in the mirror? Unfortunately, too many leaders want transformation to happen at unrealistic speeds, with minimal effort, and everywhere but within themselves.
Cultural norms ingrained by past management practices remain rooted far beyond the practices that formed them, even when new training is introduced. Don’t pour money into training, year after year, in an effort to trigger organizational change without creating the conditions that challenge assumptions, embrace new ideas, and provide the fertile soil for the seeds of training to grow.