How to Create a Culture

By Robyn Undieme | September 16, 2016

Below is a story I heard during my time at Oxford that made me want to yell in my seat, "Yes, that's so true!" This isn't a new story, but it's a cautionary tale of how a dysfunctional culture can get started. It focuses on the negative creation of culture, but there's also such a thing as creating a positive culture. I share this, both as a warning as well as encouragement that our actions have a long-term impact beyond what we may see: good or bad. If you find yourself stuck in a negative culture, consider how your words and actions have the power to alter that reality for future City workers by asking the question, "Why?"

"Start with a cage containing five apes. In the cage, hang a banana on a string and place stairs under it. Before long, an ape will go to the stairs and start to climb toward the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the apes with cold water. After a while, another ape will make an attempt with the same result: all the apes are sprayed with cold water.

Turn off the cold water. If another ape tries to climb the stairs, the other apes will try to prevent it even though no water sprays them. Now, remove one ape from the cage and replace with a new one. The new ape sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his horror, all of the other apes attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows he will be assaulted if he tries to climb the stairs. Next, remove another of the original five apes and replace with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm. Again, replace a third original ape with a new one. The new one makes it to the stairs and is also attacked. Two of the four apes that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest ape.

After replacing the fourth and fifth original apes, all of the apes, which have been sprayed with cold water, have been replaced. Nevertheless, no ape ever again approaches the stairs. Why not? "Because that's the way it's always been around here."

That's how company culture begins.