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Written by
on 21 September 2009


Negative attitudes perpetrated over time can squelch workplace innovation.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that innovative new ideas are the lifeblood of any business. In today’s rapidly changing competitive business world, if you’re not steadily moving ahead, you are, in fact, falling behind. It won’t be long before your competitors leave you in the dust. However, it also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to observe the numerous obstacles business put in the way of getting the very innovative new ideas they need.


Think about it for a second.


How many times recently have you heard someone (or even yourself!) say, in response to the suggestion of a new and innovative idea, any of the following: “We don’t do things that way around here.” “We tried something like that a while back and it didn’t fly.” “That’s a really interesting idea, but you’ll first have to satisfy Policy S, Y and Z before we can even consider it.”

If you’ve worked in a large business (which includes government) you’ve heard more than your share of these statements, and a plethora more like them. They all reflect a simple truth about how business policies begin and get perpetrated that, as the story below points out, even monkeys can understand.


Start with a cage containing five monkeys.


Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb toward the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt to get the banana with the same result – all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.


Now, put away the cold water.


Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. (Even monkeys experience turnover!) The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To her surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack her. After a second attempt and attack, she knows that if she tries to climb the stairs, she’ll be assaulted.

Now, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes straight to the stairs and is attacked. (The previous newcomer takes part in this hazing with enthusiasm!) Continue this turnover process (after all, new blood is a supposed good!) and watch as all the newcomers get the same treatment from their teammates (most of whom are not really all that sure why they were not permitted to climb the stairs in the first place or even why they are making life equally difficult for the newest monkey.)

Behavioural Safety Development

Now, here is the real kicker.


After replacing all of the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever personally been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why? Because as far as they know, “that’s they way it’s always been done around here.”

So, if your business seems not to be getting the variety and number of truly new and innovative ideas it needs to stay ahead of the competition, here’s a few simple questions you might want to ask yourself.

Q.1 When is the last time you did a thorough and rigorously honest assessment of all your business’s Health and Safety Policy Risk Assessments and procedures to see which ones have become outdated?

Q.2 In what subtle (and not so subtle) ways do people’s new and different ideas get “doused” by you and or your colleagues?

Q.3 When you do bring some new blood on board, how long does it take for those people to look and act just like everyone else?

Why are these questions so vital? Because when it comes to human behavior in businesss, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know the power of “monkey see, monkey do.”

About the author

David Cant is a Director at Veritas Consulting. The SME’s favourite go-to consultant for health and safety know-how. Bucket loads of experience. Fluent in practical advice. Solutionist with a brain you can pick. You can find him across social media on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.