I recently read about a fascinating experiment from way back in 1966.

Five monkeys were placed in a large cage. In the middle of the cage was placed a set of steps, the top of which was a bunch of bananas.

Every time one of the five monkeys went for the steps the experimenters sprayed all five with freezing water. Pretty soon the five learnt that touching the steps resulted in everyone being hosed. The bananas stayed where they were.

The experimenter then turned off the water and replaced one of the monkeys. Upon seeing the bananas the new monkey rushed for the steps. But before he could reach them the remaining four monkeys set upon him: they didn’t want to be hosed with freezing water. The bananas remained untouched.

One-by-one all five monkeys were replaced until none of the monkeys who had been hosed remained, and yet, none touched the steps. None of the new monkeys had been hosed, and yet they knew they weren’t to touch the steps and reach for the bananas.

Even though this was almost 50 years ago, and there is some conjecture as to whether or not this experiment happened as described, it is a great analogy that speaks into how organisational cultures are formed and set.

A person’s values and beliefs cut to the heart of their identity. These values and beliefs are shaped by his/her parenting and life experiences. Typically these set at a young age. It becomes part of their ‘DNA’. It shapes how they act and behave—what others see of them. A person will rarely waver from this position.

The same is true for an organisation. An organisation’s cultural identity is shaped by the parenting, that is, leadership style imposed upon it and the events it experiences. The subsequent norms and values are set as a result. Once set, it is very hard to change.

Comments such as, “we have always done it this way” will be uttered to any new employee when they arrive at the organisation for the first time. Often people don’t even understand why something is done in a particularly way, they just do it anyway.

Group behaviour comes into play. Individuals desire to fit in and belong. Before long they fall into line and, “do it how it has always been done”, perpetuating the culture much in the same way the new five new monkeys did. The culture is embedded and becomes the organisation’s DNA—its identity.

Trying to break, or shift a deeply embedded culture is like trying to shift a person’s character—nigh on impossible. A person has to want to change for any lasting effect to be experienced. In the same way an organisation has to want to change. A start for any new leader is to ask countless questions:

“Why do we do it this way?”

“What is the reason for it?”

“Please explain why we cannot change this?”

Challenging, and hopefully changing the narrative of the stories that have shaped an organisation to help people see that there are alternatives takes persistence and courage. Many people will want to cling to the original narrative. Bonding to the experiences and stories, particularly traumatic ones, provides connection. The Stockholm syndrome can even come into play where, to neutralise a threat, others accept and normalise the values of the aggressor (the aggressor being the leader).

I have had the immense privilege as a leader to set the norms and culture of one organisation before being given the privilege of leading an organisation that has a deeply embedded history. I was the founding Head of a School that grew from 24 students to one that enrols over 1500 today. Shaping its culture and embedding the norms was immensely satisfying.

Moving to a School that has a long history and seeking to understand how my actions as a leader can effectively change culture has been an incredible learning experience. According to Daniel Goleman, leadership style has a 70% impact on organisational climate. But when you come into a school which has had a long history of an opposing leadership style, I have come to appreciate that it takes time, considerable time, along with persistence, courage and constant questioning to shift the norms. Ultimately though, the organisation, which is a living breathing community, has to collectively want to shed its old cloak and embrace new values and beliefs. Helping it to see this and then supporting it to do so is not easy.

The most compelling example of leadership and challenge to the prevailing culture of the time (and now) is the story of Jesus. He consistently challenged the cultural norms of the day, seeking to change the narrative. His actions and the parables he told were an outward demonstration of his courage:

  • the host washing the guests’ feet—unheard of;
  • you have heard is said, “an eye for an eye,” I tell you turn the other cheek –remarkable teaching;
  • a rabbi eating and socialising with the outcasts: tax collectors and prostitutes—never done;
  • A Samaritan coming to the aid of a Jew—preposterous!

He demonstrated that there was another way and supported and taught those who wished to change. Well worth looking at how he did it.