Skip to content

Monkey See, Monkey Do: Why Many Organizations are Dysfunctional

January 8, 2010

Updated March 4, 2014

I’ve enjoyed Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits over a number of years. Babauta writes about simple productivity and life issues. His book The Power of Less is a compact and practical guide to reclaiming your life from busyness and inefficiency. I highly recommend it.

Leo also has his Zen Family Habits blog, which contains helpful advice on all things simple and family happiness. A post that really caught my attention because of its application to organizations That’s the Way its Always Been tells the story of monkeys sharing a cage and how over time they’re conditioned to attack any monkey that breaks the behavioral norm, even after all of them are eventually replaced with new monkeys. I don’t want to spoil the story, so click the link.

How often have we seen this type of behavior in our organizations? As new employees, we don’t question the rituals, myths, implied scare tactics, penalty box, etc. If we dare to ask a seasoned employee, the reply is typically “I don’t know; that’s just how things are done around here.” Or, “Don’t ask why, just do what you’re told and keep your head down.”

When we enter an organization as a new employee, there’s what is called the Smell of the Place. I’m not talking about physical odors, but rather your intuitive sense of the work environment, as well as how the office is laid out. For example, I recall many years ago starting work in a new organization in which someone at a VP level banned others from using her bottled water dispenser, even though they worked just down the corridor. In another organization years later, I recall a colleague telling me that his VP had her area locked down.

When visiting other organizations, or even offices in your company’s other locations, pay attention to the subtle clues that speak to their corporate cultures. Do people seem happy and relaxed, or do they appear stiff and detached? Are they interacting, or hiding out in their cubicles? Is the work environment sterile, or have people helped personalize it?

If you’re in a job interview process and on the verge of getting an offer, it’s wise to ask the hiring manager to meet your potential co-workers. I’ve asked this in the past and when one hiring manager was reticent to agree, a warning flag went up. Why any manager would not enthusiastically consent to such a minor request should serve as a warning.

Yes, the economy is wobbly and it will be some time until the job situation improves significantly. So job hunting and getting an offer is still difficult. However, it’s very worthwhile–and important–to use your senses when making a career decision.

Workforce of the Future Footer CoverClick here to download my complimentary e-book Workforce of the Future: Building Change Adaptability, 2nd Edition.

Visit my e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Jim TaggartTake a moment to meet Jim.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 5, 2014 2:17 pm

    I once worked in a bank, and when ordering some paper from the supply department, requested a pad of lined white paper. They only had yellow lined paper. I asked if they could get some white paper. They told me no. When I asked why, they said it was because, “This is the way we’ve always done it.” When I replied, “What kind of reason is that?” they went and complained to my boss! My boss said I had upset the people in the ordering department. I think in the end, the decided to get the paper I requested. But such a silly argument over seemingly NOTHING!

    • March 5, 2014 2:22 pm

      Ha! Sounds like the federal government where I was sentenced for three decades.

  2. January 9, 2010 9:53 pm

    I enjoyed your comments about investigating the “Smell of the Place,” especially if you can do so before signing on as the company’s next employee.

    I remember many years back interviewing for a copywriting position at an Orlando ad agency. The president kept me waiting for about 45 minutes. During that time I was able to observe the hurried pace of over-stressed employees rushing to various meetings. No one was smiling as they walked by. I observed a nasty argument between coworkers. And I was able to overhear a conference call in which a client barked out demands and deadlines.

    By the time, I was called into the president’s office for my interview, I’d already decided that the “Smell of the Place” was toxic. No way I’d want to work there. I felt very fortunate that the president had kept me waiting so long and had thus given me an insider’s glimpse of what I was potentially getting into. No thank you!


  1. Why Employees are No Longer A Company’s Most Valuable Asset: The Dehumanization of the Workplace « ChangingWinds

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: