The Root Cause of Mediocrity? Monkey See, Monkey Do

Put five monkeys in a cage. Inside that cage, hang one banana on a string and place a ladder under it. Keep a garden hose nearby. Soon one of the monkeys will spot the banana and start to climb the ladder to get it. When he does, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water. Now, replace the banana.

I didn’t invent the hypothetical situation, but let’s just suppose for a second that I did…

Put five monkeys in a cage. Inside that cage, hang one banana on a string and place a ladder under it. Keep a garden hose nearby. Soon one of the monkeys will spot the banana and start to climb the ladder to get it. When he does, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water. Now, replace the banana.

After a while another one of the monkeys will probably go for the banana. Again, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water.

Monkeys are relatively smart, so pretty soon, whenever one of the monkeys attempts to climb the ladder, all the other monkeys will try to prevent him from doing it. When this happens, put away the cold water hose. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. Now hang a new banana over the ladder.

The new monkey will spot the banana and head for the ladder. To his surprise, all of the other monkeys will spontaneously attack him. After several more futile attempts, all of which will result in further beatings, the new monkey will no longer try for the banana.

Remove another of the original monkeys and again replace it with a new one. Now replace the banana. Again, the new monkey will make a grab for it. Like his predecessor he will be stunned to discover that all the other monkeys attack him. In fact, the previous newcomer will most likely take a particularly enthusiastic role in his replacement’s punishment.

One at a time, gradually replace all of the original monkeys with new ones. Each of the newcomers will go for the banana. Each one will be attacked by the other four. Most of the new monkeys have absolutely no idea why they were not allowed to climb the ladder, or why they are participating in the assault on the newest monkey.

When all of the original monkeys have been replaced, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, not one of those monkeys ever approaches the ladder. Why not? Because as far as they are concerned that’s the way it has always been done around here.

And that is how corporate culture and company policy begins.

A friend sent me that parable, and though the author is unknown to me, the moral is quite clear. If your best employees keep leaving and only the least valuable remain, you’ve got to start challenging the policies and processes that made you successful in the past. Carolyn Straub, HR Administrator for Runza National, a regional restaurant chain operator in Lincoln, NE, known for its overstuffed sandwiches, agrees. “If you tolerate employees and managers that have accepted mediocrity as the standard level of performance, each go-getter that you bring into your restaurant will be dragged down by the middle or bottom groups,” she says. “Accepting mediocrity and poor performance accelerates turnover among the good performers and leaves you with only the poor ones. The water in this story symbolizes every time that a manager compromises standards, accepts poor performance or douses an employee’s ideas, improvement suggestions, or eagerness to go above and beyond.”

I couldn’t agree more. If performance is slipping at your operation, every manager and operator should first look themselves in the mirror before they blame the economy, the competition, the customer, or the “quality of help these days.”

Do you hire people pre-screened to fit your culture or do you hire anyone and try to fit your culture to them? Rookie mistake. Maybe you quickly hire average performers and hope that “training” will fix them. But there is no right way to develop the wrong person. Do you make it a privilege to join your team, or are you surprised when once-profitable units under-perform? There is no such thing as a great team in a bad store. Are your GMs so busy managing numbers that they’re failing to recognize performers (as well as the performance)? Remember that brains, like hearts, go where they’re appreciated.

Mediocre managers will not take the time to methodically challenge the process and search out root causes of operational problems. Instead, they blame the monkeys, and determine that it must be the reward that’s wrong. So they decide to exchange the banana for an orange. Sound familiar?

If you want to get better, challenge your policies, procedures and processes daily. Ask: What makes our day difficult? Why do we do it that way? What if we didn’t? What was the origin of the policy? Does it still make sense for us, for our customers? Does the process or policy make it is easy for customers to do business with us? If not, why? Change it. Does it make it easier for our team to do business with us? If not, why? Change it. Does our hiring and training program assure us better performers than the competition? If not, why? Change it.

And if this discussion makes you uncomfortable, you’d best ask yourself one last question: “Which is stronger in our company? Our willingness to change or our resistance to it?”

Banana, anyone?