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Background Conversations: What’s At The Top Of Your Ladder?

In most organizations and communities there are a series of agreements that are so clearly ingrained that they have become part of the culture.  Mostly, they are not discussed, but they constitute assumptions about how things are.  They are virtually above question.  And here is the big issue: no one will ever question why they are the way they are.  As such, nothing is likely to change.  It could be things like, “a good excuse is as good as a job well done”, “we always wait to sell before putting anything in motion”, “don’t bring problems to management,” or any of a seemingly infinite number of unconscious agreements that can define an organization and limit what is possible.

Sometimes when a new person joins the community, they are initiated into this culture.  It may happen at the “water cooler” or on the elevator or at Friday night “happy hour”.  These mostly unspoken rules are passed on quietly as simple facts without being called to question.  All of them arose out of some circumstance, which may or may not, any longer be present.  However, if they are unquestioned, they will persist.

Background conversations do not necessarily represent the wrong way to do things, but they do represent an area over which we have no choice.  That which we cannot see, cannot be examined and as such we will not know how or why we do what we do.  As organizational leaders, it behooves us to examine why we do the things we do and to choose wisely the actions that best serve what we are committed to.

The following story will illustrate the nature of a background conversation.  I do not know if it is “true”, but it is certainly valuable:

The Experiment- Part 1

5 monkeys are locked in a cage, a banana was hung from the ceiling and a ladder was placed right underneath it. 

As predicted, immediately, one of the monkeys would race towards the ladder, to grab the banana. However, as soon as he would start to climb, the researcher would spray the monkey with ice-cold water. 

But here’s the kicker- In addition, he would also spray the other four monkeys… 

When a second monkey tried to climb the ladder, the researcher would, again, spray the monkey with ice-cold water, as well as the other four watching monkeys. 

This was repeated again and again until they learned their lesson 

Climbing equals scary cold water for EVERYONE so No One Climbs the ladder.

The Experiment- Part 2 

Once the 5 monkeys knew the drill, the researcher replaced one of the monkeys with a new inexperienced one. As predicted, the new monkey spots the banana, and goes for the ladder. BUT, the other four monkeys, knowing the drill, jumped on the new monkey and beat him up. The beat up new guy thus learns- NO going for the ladder and No Banana Period- without even knowing why and also without ever being sprayed with water! 

These actions get repeated with 3 more times, with a new monkey each time and ASTONISHINGLY each new monkey- who had never received the cold-water Spray himself (and didn’t even know anything about it), would Join the beating up of the New guy. 

This is a classic example of Mob Mentality- bystanders and outsiders uninvolved with the fight- join in ‘just because’.

When the researcher replaced a third monkey, the same thing happened; likewise for the fourth until, eventually, all the monkeys had been replaced and none of the original ones are left in the cage (that had been sprayed by water). 

The Experiment- Part 3

Again, a new monkey was introduced into the cage. It ran toward the ladder only to get beaten up by the others. The monkey turns with a curious face asking “why do you beat me up when I try to get the banana?” 

The other four monkeys stopped and looked at each other puzzled (None of them had been sprayed and so they really had no clue why the new guy can’t get the banana) but it didn’t matter, it was too late, the rules had been set. And so, although they didn’t know WHY, they beat up the monkey just because ” that’s the way we do things around here”

(This story is edited from copy found on WikiAnswers, from a response to a question regarding the veracity of the story.  It  is clearly public domain, but the answer points to some of the research that was actually done on this subject.)

It is not hard to see how the background conversation, “touching the ladder is cause for a beating”, impacted the monkeys.  None of them knew why, the actions continued and none of them enjoyed the delicious bounty that hung above.  Sometimes it is just as easy to see the background conversations in an organization.

In one organization, “we only offer the best product to meet a certain need”, was such a part of the culture that the real need that some of their customers had for a less expensive product was neglected.  Seeing this conversation for what it was enabled the board to examine whether or not this conversation was serving the company and the customers.  Ultimately they launched a whole line of products built on their strong reputation, all of quality, but meeting needs that included economics.

In another organization, “we pay on net 60 day terms” left them looking for subcontractors who, no matter how good the job, would rather work for someone else, someone who paid them when the work was done, or even in advance.  Realizing that this conversation was not the only way to look at the issue, the company was able to examine their accounting procedures and create new options that served them and their service providers.

So what are the background conversations in place in your organization?   Remember they are not all bad.  They are not necessarily the wrong way to go, but as long as they are invisible, we will never know.  And we will also never know, what’s at the top of your ladder.


© ALS Consulting 2014

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