IMAGINE CONDUCTING this experiment. Put five monkeys in a cage with a bunch of bananas hanging from the ceiling. Underneath the bananas, place a ladder just tall enough to reach them. Then any time one of the monkeys tries to climb the ladder, spray the entire cage with cold water. Pretty soon, the monkeys learn to avoid the ladder and they just give up on the bananas.
Then take one of the monkeys out of the cage and replace it with another monkey—monkey number six—and put down your sprayer. The new monkey has no idea about the booby-trapped ladder and water, so sooner or later, it tries to climb the ladder. When it does, the other four monkeys jump all over it to prevent getting a cold shower. The new monkey, of course, has no idea why it was attacked. Despite that, when another original monkey is replaced, and the same thing happens, even monkey number six participates in the attack.
Now, keep replacing monkeys one at a time until none of the original monkeys are left. Still, all five monkeys will avoid the ladder, and attack any new monkey that tries to climb it. They all obey the same rules of behavior, even though none of them have any idea why.
This is how corporate policy is formed.
That story has been told in many forms and in many places. The original author is unknown. But it does appear to be loosely based on an actual experiment by G. R. Stephenson in 1967 with rhesus monkeys. The point, of course, is that rule books don’t govern behavior in any organization. Behavior is dictated by what is rewarded or punished, even if the original reason for that rule is long forgotten and perhaps no longer present. This holds true whether the reward or punishment is witnessed in person or relayed through a story. With monkeys in a cage, of course, it must be witnessed personally. In a corporate environment of humans, it’s usually a story that carries the message. Here’s a case in point.
At the corner of Pike Street and Columbia Parkway in downtown Cincinnati, right across from Procter & Gamble’s world headquarters, stands a 100-year-old, eight-story building. Today it serves as owner-occupied condominiums. But in the 1980s and 1990s, it was a commercial office building, known by the name of its largest tenant, R.L. Polk & Company. Every P&G new hire at the time was intimately familiar with the Polk Building because one of its floors was leased to P&G and served as the company training center. All new hires spent at least a week there during their first year learning about the company and how to do their jobs. It was also the subject of the first story I ever heard told at P&G.
Part of the training philosophy at the Polk Building was that the most effective learning takes place when the student is completely immersed in the material and isolated from distractions of the main office across the street. So the floor was equipped with a cafeteria that served a free lunch and snacks to all trainees to keep them in the building and focused on their studies. And since the only people on the floor were the trainees and trainers, they didn’t even have need for a cash register.
A free lunch?
Over one of those first free lunches, one of our trainers regaled my new-hire class with stories about the company. The first was a highly engaging one about two of our predecessors several years earlier. Two young men, just out of college, had joined P&G and spent their requisite time in the Polk Building. A few weeks later, one of them arrived at work without his wallet. Not wishing to spend an entire afternoon working on an empty stomach, and too embarrassed to ask anyone for a loan, he remembered the free lunches across the street. So he simply walked into the Polk Building, went to the cafeteria, ordered his lunch, and enjoyed his free meal. Pleased with his resourcefulness, he shared his exploit with his comrade and convinced him to join him the next day for a free lunch. Together, they walked in and leisurely consumed their free meal without a single question or sideways glance from anyone. There were no security guards to keep them out, no signature required, no badges to swipe to authenticate their “trainee” status.
Emboldened by their success, they repeated the exercise twice more that week and several times over the rest of the month. Of course, after seeing the same faces returning for lunch so often over such a long period of time, the cafeteria staff began to wonder what was going on. Even the instructors teaching the courses were usually never in the building more than a week at a time. They had full-time jobs across the street to get back to as well. Had these two been hired as P&G’s first full-time trainers? The women in the cafeteria made a few phone calls to check, and quickly realized these two were interlopers, bilking the company one lunch at a time.
Despite their pleas of ignorance, the story ended with their unceremonial exit from the company, the details of which were highly entertaining and almost certainly exaggerated by our host. The laughter at the lunch table continued among my colleagues, and ended with the coining of a new phrase that meant being fired for stealing from the company in a flagrantly stupid fashion. From then on, we referred to such an expulsion as being “Polked.”
It was never clear to us if the story was true or apocryphal. But it didn’t matter. It stuck. There was no entry in the policy manual that told us we would get fired for eating in the Polk Building if we weren’t in training. But after hearing that story, none of us would even consider repeating the offense. More importantly, it put us on notice that there are probably all kinds of bad behaviors that could get you fired without being explicitly told so in advance. The story taught us to use our common sense of what’s right and wrong. We didn’t need a rule book. If you do right, good things happen. If you do wrong, there are consequences, up to and including getting fired. The story, and the phrase coined from it, became a self-policing mechanism among my peers. If any of us ever said or did anything even remotely questionable, they would be quickly met with a probing look and the admonition,
Careful, genius. Keep that up and you’ll get Polked.”
Rarely does anyone ever actually read a company policy manual. The purpose manuals primarily serve is a legal one. If the company is ever sued for wrongfully terminating an employee who broke the rules, the company lawyer can cite chapter and verse in front of the jury exactly the policy the now-terminated employee violated. But if your objective is to keep people from violating the rules in the first place, the policy manual will do you little good, because nobody reads it.
So how do employees learn the rules of an organization? One way is through their own behavior and experience. If they get punished for something, they quickly learn not to do it again. It must have been against the rules, written or not. If they get rewarded for something, they’ll keep doing it. But nobody can possibly break all the rules themselves. So the main way people learn the rules is through the stories they hear about other people—those who broke the rules and suffered the consequences, and those who didn’t and got rewarded. So in addition to your legally required policy manual, what you need are some good stories, like this one.
Find yours and tell them.
[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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