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Beyond bananas - the power of organisational memory

During a recent learning set with university leaders, thoughts turned to how the emotional memory of an organisation and the scars it bears from past (traumatic) experiences can live on long after those involved have left.

I was reminded of the story of the "five monkeys experiment", helpfully summarised in this short YouTube clip below (thank you to Nic Stephen for sharing).

In less than 2 minutes, it illustrates how behaviours and cultural norms are perpetuated within organisations without questioning their origin or relevance.

In the experiment, a group of monkeys were conditioned to avoid climbing a ladder to get to bananas because of the threat of punishment, even when the reason for the punishment had ceased.

Subsequent monkeys introduced to the environment learned this behaviour from their predecessors, despite not experiencing the punishment themselves. Eventually, all monkeys followed the rule without understanding its rationale.

The phenomenon mirrors how organisational cultures often maintain outdated practices simply because "that's how it's always been done," highlighting the importance of questioning and revisiting established norms to ensure their continued relevance and effectiveness.

However it also raises another interesting question about how leaders might need to better recognise the hurt that underpins the continued unhelpful behaviour, then create truly meaningful initiatives that sustain the desired change.

Honouring the past and helping an organisation heal their scars through empathy, understanding and patience is a good starting point.

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