During a discussion with a banker friend the other day,
I was reminded of how much influence our culture can have
over us; whether that culture is ethnic, familial, religious,
corporate or industry. We were talking about how much pressure
people feel working in organisations in our fast-paced modern
workplace. I told her that I had another conversation with
a real estate company executive who swore to me that the
pressure to perform to ever growing objectives was quite
explicit, that is, he actually received directives from
his boss to work harder and harder.
I suggested that perhaps the pressure was coming from the
culture or system in which he was immersed. He seemed quite
adamant that this was not the case, almost arguing with
me as if I didnt appreciate the pressures to which
he was being subjected.
My banker friend told me a story which I find quite illuminating
to this conversation.
As a senior officer in her bank, she received feedback from
some of the banks staff that her comments at weekly
staff meetings had been a bit intimidating. So, as an experiment,
she started sitting in the back of the room and refrained
from saying anything during the meetings for three straight
It amazed her when she heard someone refer to what she said
in a meeting; words she never uttered. The staffers imagined
what my friend might have said had she actually spoken,
but she hadnt spoken a word. These people had been
part of the corporate system long enough so that they thought
they knew what she would say and anticipated her point-of-view.
But it was all fiction, pure imagination.
This is how systems become dysfunctional.
This is how informal cultures are formed, where those seemingly
in power attract co-dependent behaviour as the children
scurry about trying to please mommy or daddy.
Psychologists and other mental health professionals might
call this fusion, where the co-dependents
boundaries are confused with the person for whom they are
performing. This is one way of avoiding responsibility for
ones own behaviour. The people tell themselves that
they are merely doing what is expected of them. Never mind
that much of it is imagined.
We see this in alcoholic households, dysfunctional business
and religious organisations, government agencies and in
the hallowed halls of academe. People read intent and meaning
into casual statements or even imagined ones trying to read
the minds of their superiors. Then they assign realness
to their fiction.
And if you query the people who are doing the scurrying
they will swear they were told to behave in certain ways.
They are sure they were explicitly directed to do so, forgetting
entirely they anticipated what the system would want from
them, and then complied with their own imagined directive.
In their minds, fiction was turned into fact.
Im reminded of that story I included in my book Getting
to the Better Future which was discovered on the Internet
without any attribution. I call it the story of the
five apes and goes like this:
Put five apes in a room. Hang a banana from the ceiling
and place a ladder underneath the banana. The banana is
only reachable by climbing the ladder.
Have it set up so any time an ape starts to climb the ladder,
the whole room is sprayed with ice cold water. In a short
time, all the apes will learn not to climb the ladder.
Now, take one ape out and replace him with another one Ape
No 6. Then disable the sprayer. The new ape will start to
climb the ladder and will be attacked unmercifully by the
other four apes. He will have no idea why he was attacked.
Replace another of the original apes with a new one and
same thing will happen, with Ape No 6 doing the most hitting.
Continue this pattern until all the original apes have been
replaced. Now all of the apes will stay off the ladder,
attacking any ape that attempts to, and have absolutely
no idea why they are doing it.
This is how company policy and culture is formed.
None of the apes in the story could speak but they inferred
the directive and stood loyal to it. This is
what many people do in the cultures they work in, the industries
or companies or trades or churches or families to which
they belong. They become obscenely loyal to the system so
much so they imagine what the system wants and conform so
they are perceived as loyal members. Then they will swear
they were ordered to conform or they were intimidated when
confronted with the facts of the situation.
A group of soldiers who commit war crimes serves as one
extreme example but there are thousands of situations in
the workplace where imagined directives dictate how people
behave and to what they remain loyal.
So next time you wonder why you are doing something you
dont feel right about, when youre feeling co-opted,
ask yourself: did I imagine that they want me to do this
or is it truly an explicit directive?
If you are a boss, learn that people may infer things from
what you say, like in the case of my banker friend. Be responsible
for the impact you could be having without intending it
and remain aware that you could be implying things you do
not intend to imply, which makes it easier for people to
fuse with you or try to imagine how they might
Encourage everyone you work with to be open and authentic,
responsible and honest.
When individual authenticity and responsibility become commonplace
the dysfunction will diminish and the system will start
being the servant of the people within it instead of their
John Renesch is a leadership expert, author and distinguished
professor at the University of Southern California. He will
be in Trinidad for a two day workshop from April 30 on Sink
or Succeed Leveraging Organisational Performance
Through Systems Thinking. E-mail [email protected]
for more information.