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Business Ethics Lessons from a Bunch of Monkeys

Once your corporate culture is established it can take on a life of its own. Make sure you get it right from the start.

Posted by Dawn Lomer on March 14th, 2012

If you want your employees to act ethically, condition them with bananas. Well, maybe not bananas, but conditioning them to act ethically is great idea. And if the conditioning is strong enough and pervasive enough, the ethical corporate culture you have created could outlast the individual employees who experienced the conditioning.

But it goes both ways. Employees can be conditioned to act unethically just as easily as they can be conditioned to act ethically. And if you don’t take control of the company’s culture and ensure that the conditioning is positive, you may end up with a bad corporate culture that is ingrained.

Employees can be conditioned to act unethically just as easily as they can be conditioned to act ethically.
Among the findings of the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey conducted by the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) was the revelation that the percentage of companies with weak ethical cultures climbed to near-record levels. A whopping 42 percent of respondents felt their companies’ ethical cultures were lacking.

Once established, a corporate culture perpetuates, as demonstrated by a bunch of monkeys.

Back to Bananas

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This is the idea behind the anecdotal experiment that authors Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad relate in their book “Competing for the Future” (Harvard Business School Press, 1994). It’s an old story but it makes a great point.

It goes like this: Four monkeys were put in a room with a tall pole. A bunch of bananas were attached to the top of the pole. Every time the monkeys tried to reach the bananas, they were sprayed with a blast of cold water. After repeated attempts to climb the pole to get the bananas, the monkeys stopped trying.

Researchers then removed the water hose and replaced one of the original monkeys with a new one. Seeing the bananas, the new monkey started up the pole, but the other monkeys pulled it down before it got blasted with water. This happened repeatedly until the new monkey stopped trying to get the bananas.

Mindset Matters

Over the next few weeks, the researchers removed the rest of the original monkeys one at a time, replacing them with new monkeys that had never seen the jet of water. Although there was no longer anything stopping the monkeys from reaching the bananas, each new monkey going for the bananas was pulled down by the others.

By the end of the experiment, not a single monkey had ever seen the water hose, but none of them tried to get the bananas. They had all learned that: “You don’t grab the bananas around here.”

Similarly, employees can learn that ” we don’t fudge expenses around here”, “we don’t make sexist comments around here” or “we

Through this anecdote Hamel and Prahalad offer this business lesson: “Precedents, enacted into policy manuals, corporate processes, and training programs often outlive the particular industry context that created them.”

Getting things right from the start can ensure you establish a culture of ethics for your company that lives on long after you, or your employees, have moved on.

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Manager of Communications

Dawn Lomer is the Manager of Communications at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.

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