I recently saw an experiment, carried out by Derren Brown, that reminded me of a story I read a long time ago. Derren had actors provide social cues to a group of unaware participants, which encouraged them to perform certain activities whenever they heard a bell ring. Importantly, they never explained why, they just acted in unison and outnumbered the participants by about 4:1. This provided a level of social pressure to conform, and over time these people learned the 'rules' and all happily partook in the activities on command. A 'social norm' was set. Overtime, they replaced the actors with new members and eventually a whole team of people were carrying out behaviours for no other reason than 'the rest of the group were doing it'.
It reminded of a fable about a 'rogue' monkey, which has been used to illustrate the principle of learned avoidance behaviour. There is now a significant body of evidence on the subject. The principle being that we can learn to avoid certain situations, based on social cues. We can do this without ever having had exposure to the effect, or understanding the actual reasons for, the need to avoid said situations. This behaviour can be both adaptive or maladaptive, and in recent times the principle has been used in leadership seminars, books and blogs.
Though the piece of research it is often attributed to had very little in common with the story, the fable suggests that 12 Monkeys were put in a large cage with a set of steps leading to a bunch of bananas. Designed to encourage the monkeys to pursue the fruit, whenever a monkey attempted to take a step on the ladder, all of the monkeys were blasted with ice cold water. This happened repeatedly until non of the monkeys dared to attempt to reach the fruit and any attempt to do so was met with fierce resistance from the others in the group.
After a while, a new monkey was introduced into the cage, whilst one of the original monkeys was removed. Unaware of the icy blast that awaited him or the potential impact of his actions, the new monkey made the same attempt to reach the fruit as the other had before him. However, before he made the steps, the other monkeys demonstrated through their own behaviour, that the ladders were 'out of bounds'. All the other monkeys acted together to teach the new monkey the 'rules' regarding the steps and that they should be avoided.
The addition of a new monkey, and removal of an original monkey continued until all of the monkeys in the cage were 'new'. Whilst non of them had ever experienced the icy blast, the reason for the need to avoid the steps, all of them had learned the social rules that the area was out of bounds. Eventually, a more courageous monkey was introduced. This monkey refused to accept the social rules and instead took the initiative and ignored the social pressure to conform. This time though, they were not sprayed by an icy blast. This monkey received a reward by attaining the bananas and the others observed cautiously.
Over time, the other monkeys overcame their fear, and each began testing for themselves. The group established a new sets of rules, and adapted their behaviour accordingly.
It's a somewhat fun way to illustrate a point. It's not suggesting we need lots of rule breakers, it's suggesting we should all be prepared to challenge if their appears no logical case for that particular behaviour. When we enter a situation in which we face the response of 'that's the way we have always done it' it may be useful to have the courage to challenge. We can ask if there is a way to do things slightly differently and find ways to lead others in setting a new set of rules and behaviours. It doesn't necessarily need 'brave' individuals though, this is about how we open ourselves to new ways of seeing things. We can start with our behaviours in the workplace, the way we lead teams and the work we do. An interesting task is to look at your typical week, at all the meetings you have, your management processes, the task you do or ask others to do and simply question...."have I thought about how and why I'm doing this and what I want to achieve?".