Why the Five Monkeys?

by Michael Saad

I wanted a place, where I could update my team. This is it.

I use this site as part of an overall communication plan to keep information flowing between myself and my 2,000 employees through text, email and hidden areas on this site that are only available to them.

5 monkeys were placed in a cage as part of an experiment.

In the middle of the cage, was a ladder with bananas on the top rung. Every time a monkey tried to climb the ladder; they were all sprayed with icy water.

Eventually, each time a monkey started to climb the ladder, the other ones pulled him off and beat him so they could avoid the icy spray. Soon, no monkey dared go up the ladder.

One monkey was then substituted with a new monkey.

The first thing the new monkey did was try to climb the ladder to reach the bananas. After several beatings, the new monkey learned the social norm. He never knew “why” the other monkeys wouldn’t let him go for the bananas because he had never been sprayed with ice water, but he quickly learned that this behavior would not be tolerated by the other monkeys.

One by one, each of the monkeys in the cage was substituted for a new monkey until none of the original group remained. Every time a new monkey went up the ladder, the rest of the group pulled him off, even those who had never been sprayed with the icy water.

By the end of the experiment, the 5 monkeys in the cage had learned to follow the rule (don’t go for the bananas), without any of them knowing the reason why (we’ll all get sprayed by icy water). If we could have asked the monkeys for their rationale behind not letting their cage mates climb the ladder, their answer would probably be: “I don’t know, that’s just how it’s always been done.”

The most dangerous phrase in the world is:

We have always done it this way.

Whether the story of the “Five Monkeys Experiment” is actually true or not – it serves as my forever anecdotal emphasis that I want you to stop doing things just because they’ve always been done.

We tend to do things the way we’re told they’ve always been done… without questioning or revisiting the reason behind it, even long after that reason ceases to exist.

Learn the why behind what you’re doing. Ask questions. Only then can you truly lead your employees.

Managers do things that sometimes make little sense, but it’s how they were taught (or how they watched others do it) and it just became the norm over time, without taking into account the changing climate, the current market conditions, COVID… or that how it was done was just wrong from the beginning.

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