At the heart of any organisation’s culture are the fundamental beliefs and assumptions held by the people in that organisation.

The Wet Monkeys story is often used to illustrate the power of this – if you know the story, please scroll down to the insight; if not, then please read on.

Now I don’t know if this is a true story, but it has become apocryphal in Organisational Development – and it goes like this. You get a room with some monkeys in. In the middle of the room there is a bunch of bananas hanging from the ceiling, with a step ladder beneath them.

Whenever a monkey goes to the steps you hose down the other monkeys with cold water. Really soak those little simians. Drench them. The monkeys begin to twig that going for the bananas results in a dousing, so if one of their number fancies a snack, the other monkeys will dissuade them.

Now you start phasing out the hosing. And the monkeys will still not go near the ‘nanas. Now take a monkey out and replace it with a new one. New monkey heads straight for the fruit (are bananas a fruit? we’ll perhaps cover that another time) and the monkeys stop him.

Then you replace another monkey, and the same thing happens. You keep on switching those monkeys until none of the original monkeys remain. None of the monkeys have been soaked as a result of going for the bananas, but none of them try it, because it is a fundamental belief in that group that if you go for the bananas, bad things will happen.

That’s how culture can work. I have spoken in previous blogs of behaviours that were driven by shared beliefs that were no longer true – and organisation where people were scared to show their head above the parapet because scary bosses would bite it off. Even though the scary bosses in question weren’t there any more.

That’s how powerful those fundamental beliefs are – they can drive the rest of the culture even if they are wrong. And, as they are at the core of culture, they are at the core of culture change

You can change all the artifacts you like, encourage the right behaviours, but if you don’t shift those fundamental beliefs and assumptions, then you aren’t going to truly shift the culture.

How do you do it, then? Well, you need real and systemic change. Need new behaviours? Then change! Like this

  • Change your attraction proposition so you attract people who are more likely to behave the way you want them to behave.
  • Change your recruitment and on-boarding process so that people really understand what is expected of them.
  • Change your reward systems so that the right behaviours are rewarded
  • Change your development processes so that people learn the right behaviours
  • Change your managers and role models until they are the ones who demonstrate the behaviours you want to encourage.

Pretty easy, until the last one, isn’t it? Because you can change the first four but if the fundamental beliefs don’t change, the actual values don’t change, and the behavioural norms won’t change.

In fact, if you change the attraction and recruitment process and get the right people in, but they experience something different from what they were expecting, what do you think they will be thinking.

I found this when I designed some exit interviews, working with a business that had really high turnover in their call centres. The prevailing view was that people were moving for money – it was a competitive job market, and the anecdotal evidence was that people were going down the road for a few pounds a week extra. (I actually produced some of that evidence after hearing four guys chatting on the bus one evening – they had worked together in the call centre, but one had moved on and was getting an extra £10 a week).

When we looked at the actual data, however, a different picture emerged. Most leavers who were going within the first 12 months said the job wasn’t what they expected. They had been told something in their recruitment, but the reality was something else.

Going into more detail with interviews and spending time with people on the ground it became clear that the culture that people perceived would exist, through the brand (employer and otherwise) simply didn’t exist once they got there. The answer? Culture change.

I’ll discuss how to go about this kind of change in a future blog, and I will also talk about the importance of brand in the employee experience. I am looking forward to this, as it will give me a chance to use the word dissonance, and I do like that word.

What are the fundamental beliefs and assumptions that lie at the heart of your organisation? Are they the same everywhere? What values do they create, and what behavioural norms come from them? Understand the core beliefs within your organisation, and whether they are helping your business perform effectively – or are actually holding you back.