Even Monkeys know this.

Insert a group of monkeys into a room, with a pole in the center of the room and a stash of ripe Bananas at the top of the pole. Keep the monkeys adequately fed and hydrated, but leave the Banana snacks at the top of the pole. Pretty soon the monkeys realize that there is a reward at the top of the pole and they persistently scurry up the pole to treat themselves to the available stash. Then, after a few days of free access to the Bananas, spray each snacker with a jet of cold water every time they try to climb the pole for the Bananas, until all the monkeys have been sprayed. After a few days of repeating this exercise, the monkeys no longer climb the pole for the Banana snacks, even though they remain at the top of the pole – in plain sight.

Now this is where the fun begins. Remove one monkey at a time and replace with a fresh monkey from outside the room that has no prior knowledge or exposure to the Banana and pole events. The fresh monkey takes the usual amount of time to acclimate to the group and then quickly identifies the Banana snacks at the top of the pole. Before long it makes for the pole and begins to climb and immediately the group grabs him and holds him down, preventing him from going up the pole, presumably to protect him from getting sprayed with a cold jet of water. The monkey tries a few more times, but is repeatedly restrained from climbing the pole for the snacks.
Next, systematically remove a ‘sprayed’ monkey for a fresh monkey without any prior exposure to the events in the controlled room until all the original monkeys have been removed and a completely new batch of monkeys now populates the room. Because of what the culture and environments have taught these fresh inserts, none of the new monkeys will scale the pole in pursuit of the Banana snacks laying so temptingly at the top of the pole. They have been taught by the group before them that it is not safe to go after the Bananas. At this point none of them have ever been sprayed with water and have no first hand experience of the discouraging effect of a shot of cold water, yet they refuse to go after the rewards. The environment has taught them otherwise.

The environment in the room, the culture in the room, changed the behavior of the occupants and even affected the next generation. It caused the next generation to adopt a behavior that was counter productive and incredibly limiting. What is the environment in your work space telling others? Did it evolve into what it is is today, or did you put it there – on purpose?

Some options to consider to brighten or strengthen the environment.

Physical

  1. Ask your staff if they have all the resources they need (computers, chairs, software etc) and address what you find.
  2. Circulate a short anonymous survey to ask about their perception of the physical environment. You might find that some lamps and a fresh coat of paint could get you a lot of mileage.
  3. Designate a time of the day from 10-12 every work day(or some version of this) – as a ‘NO DISTRACTIONS ALLOWED’ window. In the Church perhaps we value relationships more than other work environments, but what that does is invite random pop-in discussions and it becomes impossible to have a productive block of time.

Cultural

  1. Align what you say with what you do. Having a vision that embraces one idea and a corporately accepted behavior that supports something different is obviously not what Leaders want, but often what evolves. It creates a confusing environment.
  2. Keep the main things in the cross-hairs. i.e. Do you say that you ‘value balance for life’ then don’t reward or recognize the guy that regularly stays overtime.
  3. Model the behavior you want to see. As the thermostat that regulates the temperature in your area, you can influence the environment very strongly.

Environment and culture is often caught as much as taught and the people that intentionally fashion both forms of communication to portray what they want to say, build the healthiest work environments.

Two questions then:

  • What would your employees say is the real culture at work – despite what’s written in the mission statement?
  • What behavior are you modeling to those that watch around you?