Are You Passing On Misery?

May 20, 2015

I was working with a team with significantly new composition after several members had left and new people joined to replace them.

It was an interesting situation because the long-tenured members had been through some very difficult times and had a few war wounds and maybe a little shell shock. In contrast, the new recruits had been promoted onto the team and were eager to contribute to the cause.

I feared that the longer-tenure members would pass on their grievances to the newer members of the team and because of that, I decided to share the 5 gorillas experiment. If you don’t know it, here it is in brief.

5 gorillas are in a cage. A bunch of bananas hang from the ceiling out of reach, but for a stepladder underneath. Each time a gorilla tries to climb the ladder to get a banana, an experimenter sprays them with a powerful burst of water, knocking them violently off the ladder. Eventually, when a gorilla goes to climb the ladder, the others pull him off to protect him from the spray.

Eventually, the experimenter stops spraying and slowly changes out one at a time until no gorilla who has ever seen a spraying is still in the cage. But still, when a gorilla approaches the ladder, the others pull him off.

Ok, now you have the gist of the story. Culture and norms are passed from generation to generation.

When I looked it up in search of the proper citation, it turns out someone just made the story up. It’s not a real experiment. The gall!

But I’m sticking with the gorilla story. Even if it’s just a parable, it’s a valuable one. That’s probably why it still makes its way around the internet even after being debunked.

I relate to the story. I frequently see teams working on out-dated information about the behavior that is accepted and not accepted. Maybe there was a gorilla that got sprayed at some point for some reason, but the myth of the ladder spray lives on long after it is useful. It endures even though it is counter to logical, productive behavior. The team is starving for the bananas that are within reach.

So if you’re an old crusty gorilla in the cage, ask yourself:

Is there a banana for your team (i.e., a healthy, valuable outcome that some people are striving for but others have lost hope in)?
Who sprayed you and what makes you fear the spray (i.e., what consequences have you seen that made you stop reaching for the better outcome? Are those consequences still in place)?
What can you do when someone gets on the ladder (i.e., what behaviors should you be supporting rather than stifling)?

For the enthusiastic new gorillas, try this:

Point out the bananas (i.e., be explicit about how you think the team should behave. Don’t be afraid to strive for something better than the status quo).
Find the hose (i.e., be sensitive and open to the history of the team and experiences that have created the norms and culture).
March over and get on the ladder (i.e., model the behavior that you think every needs to embrace).

It’s quite possible that you are the only one who can show the existing team members that it’s safe to try something new. And it will probably take a few dry trips up the ladder before they are willing to climb the first rung. But keep the faith.

Regardless of whether you’re the oldie or the newbie, being aware of the propensity to pass on norms (even beyond the point when they are useful) will help you push and challenge the team to keep growing and evolving. Don’t pass on things to next generation that weren’t working for the previous one.

[If you want to read about the debunking of the gorilla experiment, read here.]

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