Business: changing a corporate culture, buses and monkeys

Hopefully that title will make sense by the end of this article.

For the change management and organizational behavior fans in the audience (as well as those who simply need some insight into improving how their teams work), Peter Bregman has some thoughts over at on “A Good Way to Change a Corporate Culture.” He recalls a conversation with a prospective client who wanted to change the company culture, but the firm was up against some significant obstacles.

He paused and then continued, “I’m not proud of that story, but it’s how we’ve always operated the firm.” Then he looked at me, “So, Peter, how do you change the culture of a company?”

Such a simple question. I wanted to give him a simple answer.

But a culture is a complex system with a multitude of interrelated processes and mechanisms that keep it humming along.

There aren’t many more daunting tasks in the professional world than changing a culture, especially one that’s already badly dysfunctional. Organizations are far, far more than the sum of their individuals, and the collective personality and dynamics can persist even when the membership/employee base has tuned over several times. Organizations assimilate new members, imprint them, socialize them and generally turn them into fractal versions of the larger culture. All other things being equal, people entering a good organization tend to be elevated by the environment around them, while losing organizations can quickly drag even the most talented people down to their level.

Obviously, establishing a winning culture right out of the gate is important, and as is true of so many things in life, it’s far easier to make a mess than to clean it up.

The Right People

In the highly regarded Good to Great, Jim Collins emphasizes the importance of getting the right people on the bus. At some level this seems pretty basic. In business, as in sports, your success has a lot to do with your talent. But there’s more to the task than simply finding the best individual players. Any good basketball coach can tell you that the five best players aren’t necessarily the best team, and that a great team will beat great players every time. So character matters. Chemistry matters. Leadership is critical, because without it the whole never becomes more than the sum of the parts. On the contrary, weak leadership assures underperformance.

So if the question is “how can I improve my culture?” maybe the answer is a three-parter:

  • Get the right people…
  • …and by “right” we mean team players with A-games.
  • Finally, make sure you have the right coach.

Assuming you’re a good judge of talent, this seems simple enough, right?

The Monkey Problem

Except … remember what I said above about how bad dynamics persist? Maybe you’ve heard the monkey problem. It goes like this.

Put five monkeys in a cage with a small stool in the middle. Tie a banana from a string and hang it over the stool.

Sooner or later – probably sooner – one of the monkeys will climb up on the stool to try and get the banana. When it does, turn a hose on all of them. The monkeys will be mad and confused, but they don’t yet know why they got sprayed. So another monkey will go for the banana. Again, spray them all. Eventually, the monkeys will put two and two together and they’ll stop going for the banana (although there will likely be an intermediate step where a monkey goes for the stool and the rest, who have been quicker to understand the cause/effect proposition, will attack him).

At this point, remove a monkey and replace it with one who doesn’t know the situation. In short order the newcomer will go for the banana and will be summarily attacked by the rest. The new monkey will have no idea what’s going on, but will very quickly come to understand that around here one goes for the banana at his own peril.

Replace a second monkey. This one goes for the stool, the rest attack (and are joined by the most recent monkey, who is acting in accordance with the rules of the cage). Continue replacing monkeys and you shortly arrive at a circumstance where none of the monkeys in the cage have been sprayed, but all of them will attack any monkey that goes for the banana.

See where I’m going here? If you have a culture problem and realize that you need to improve the quality of your people, you have to make sure that these people can effect a positive impact on the company instead of becoming merely the latest monkey to be assimilated. Otherwise, you’re not getting the right people on the bus, you have a busload of angry, confused monkeys terrorizing pedestrians on the sidewalk. (Not sure if that metaphor works perfectly, but you get the idea.)

So What’s the Answer?

In most cases there’s not a the answer. And the change won’t come quickly, no matter what you do. But Bregman is right about the importance of changing the stories. You have to change the narrative about the company, and that starts at the top. Leaders have to be the change they envision and they have to do the change they envision. They have to begin authoring a different kind of story, one that changes the ideology and the mythology surrounding the business.

As they begin bringing new people in, it may be imperative to identify the worst “locker room cancers” and remove them from the team, but in all cases new players must be empowered to succeed quickly. And the company’s acknowledgement of that success must make clear that everyone can be a part of the new story. Under no circumstances may the company allow the successful new player to become a source of resentment by the incumbent problem children.

The next time someone asks you for an example of “easier said than done,” feel free to refer them to the previous paragraph. Yes, I know what’s being described here may sound just next to impossible, but we noted at the outset that changing a culture is one of the hardest things in the world to accomplish. So I never promised you easy answers. Furthermore, I’m a realist, so I know that some of these bad environments are perhaps too far gone already. That’s one of the sad facts of business life, I fear. Companies fail, and sometimes they fail because they allow their cultures to erode to the point where they take the whole enterprise down.

So I don’t have the answer. Hopefully, though, you now have in your possession some of the questions that need to be asked. By all means, if you have insights and experiences into getting the monkeys off the bus and the right people on it, let me know.

8 replies »

  1. Sam,

    I have profound respect for those who can play the corporate game successfully, be productive, add value, and do a good job without slipping the knife in their co-workers.

    Great post.

  2. Sam,

    Have you ever run into a person who, in the corporate environment, threw people under the bus for sport? That would be worthy of a post and I would be interested in your analysis of such behavior.

    As a sidebar, in trading, we try to nail each other all of the time, but at the end of the day, we’re all friends. In fact, I have been known to fade my girlfriend’s trades, as she has done so with me….nothing personal there, just a difference of opinion.


  3. I don’t know that I’ve dealt with people who do it for FUN. Out of ignorance or hatefulness or fear, maybe. But from where I sit, it doesn’t matter why somebody shot you. You’re still bleeding and self-preservation suggests that you should consider returning fire.

  4. Culture & attitudes come from the top. If you wanna change the culture, change the boss. We are herd animals.

    • Tonsure: this always sounds like a good theory, but bosses are subject to being borged, as well. Take a look at the Roman Catholic Church. They change leaders every few years and some of those leaders have been “reformers.” Still, the RCC circa 2009 looks a lot like RCC circa 1700, and so on.