How To Avoid A Toxic Culture

By Greg Nathan posted March 8, 2021

Most of us have joined an established team and, trying to be helpful, have said or done something we thought was sensible. Yet, instead of gratitude, we may have received a subtle or not so subtle rebuke along the lines, "Cool it Buster, this isn't how we do things around here". Ouch! That's culture in action - one of the most powerful forces on the planet which shapes behaviour in weird and wonderful ways.

Sometimes leaders scratch their head at the things their teams innocently do without thinking, wondering how a potentially dangerous habit has infiltrated their beloved business. While culture comes from the top, it also comes from somewhere else - the past. This story about a group of monkeys explains how.

The monkeys and the bananas

Some researchers were studying the behaviour of monkeys. They hung a bunch of ripe bananas from the top of a cage, left a ladder underneath, and then let five monkeys into the cage. After spotting the bananas, some of the monkeys started to climb the ladder. But before they could get halfway, the researchers sprayed them all with a fire hose. The monkeys on the ladder were knocked flying, while the rest went sliding across the concrete floor. The researchers then turned off the hose.

The monkeys shook themselves off and looked up at the bananas. A few then crept over to the ladder and again started to climb. Again, the researchers turned the fire hose on them all. While the monkeys were now agitated and nervous, a few crept toward the ladder and started to climb. They were all then again sprayed with the hose. After that, none of the monkeys tried to climb the ladder.

The researchers then systematically replaced each monkey with one that had not seen or experienced the spray treatment. As each new monkey entered the cage, it couldn’t believe its luck when it saw the ladder and the bananas waiting to be picked. But each time a new monkeys started to climb the ladder, the others, remembering the trauma of the spray, pulled it down and beat it.

Eventually, all the monkeys from the original experiment had been replaced. Yet when a new monkey joined them and tried to climb the ladder to get the bananas, the others dragged it down and beat it. Climbing the ladder was taboo, and to do so meant punishment

The difference between values and rituals

The point is, when someone joins a business, their behaviour is going to be influenced by the habits and beliefs of the group, which will have been shaped by stories about what’s okay and what’s not okay.

Some of these behaviours will have been designed to help the group function effectively and achieve its goals. I’d call these values. Other behaviours or habits may be based on half-baked stories from the past, or misinterpretations of what someone was told. I’d call these rituals that serve no useful purpose.

I was recently informed by a new staff member, they had been told not to change anything to do with one of our tools as I would get mad. I laughed as this was a distortion of an objection I had raised in the past, when someone had changed something with this tool in a sloppy manner. The belief that you can't change anything is the ritual. A commitment to not doing sloppy work is the value. 

How to keep your culture fresh and relevant

Because rituals can so easily take root, we all need to maintain fresh eyes and keep an open mind to how things are done in our businesses. This is why good leaders frequently revisit their values and try to keep their culture free of mindless rituals. This applies to individual franchisee businesses, regional clusters, a franchisor’s Support Office, and entire franchise networks.

Culture taps into a deep social drive to be accepted by the group, and is more powerful than monetary incentives and personality. So if you want to build a high performance business, pay attention to culture.

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