Corporate Primatology


According to Edgar Schein, former professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, unspoken rules exist without the conscious knowledge of their existence.  Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and political philosopher Karl Marx agree that people’s behavior is culturally determined without their knowing it.  The best story I’ve heard that illustrates this concept is research conducted on six chimpanzees over the course of seven weeks.

Week 1:  Six chimps are placed in a room.  A banana is placed on the ceiling fan.  The chimps are fed other food elsewhere, but any time one of them would attempt to reach for the banana on the ceiling fan, the researchers would spray all of the chimps with ice-cold water.  It didn’t matter who reached for the banana, all primates got showered.  At the end of the week, not one reached for the banana.

Week 2:  One of the chimps is removed from the experiment and replaced with a new one.  The first thing the on-boarding primate attempts to do is to reach for the freshly replaced banana on the ceiling fan.  He is faced with noticeable intimidation from the other chimps, since they have learned that any attempt to take the banana off the ceiling fan will result in an ice-cold shower for all.  The newcomer modifies his behavior to disinterest in the banana because expressed interest results in actual force or fear of being beaten up by the five original chimps.

Week 3:  Another original chimp is removed and replaced.  The same scenario results, this time with the previous week’s newcomer joining the fray in punishing the newest recruit from attempting to reach for the banana.

Week 4:  Another original chimp is removed and replaced.  At this stage we have 3 original chimps and 3 new recruits.  Same behavior ensues.

Week 5:  Another original chimp is removed and replaced.  Same behavior ensues.

Week 6:  Another original chimp is removed and replaced.  Same behavior ensues.

Week 7:  Now we have none of the original chimpanzees in the room, and here is where it gets interesting.  A brand new chimp is introduced, and the newcomer is aggressively “advised” to not reach for the banana on the ceiling fan.  What’s important to note is that none of the chimps currently in the room ever experienced an ice-cold shower.

So here’s the question: Why don’t they reach for the banana?  Because that’s the way they have always done it.



The Organizational PlayBook

Those who learn early in life that it is okay to be yourself, express yourself in your own style, and have had that behavior reinforced over a long period of time, are very likely to encounter difficulty conforming to workplace norms.  This is especially challenging for those who enter organizations where values, preferences, behaviors, etc, are professed to be one thing (see Level 2 below), but in reality practice a host of unwritten rules.

Schein’s organizational culture model has three levels that reveal group culture:

Level 1- Verbal, behavioral and physical artifacts.  The surface manifestations of an org culture.

Level 2- Values.  The professed culture of an organization’s members.

Level 3- Tacit Assumptions.  The unseen elements of culture not cognitively identified in daily group interactions.

Further, these “tacit assumptions” are usually taboo topics, things which organizational members dare not discuss.  Those employees/chimps familiar enough with the driving elements of this deepest level of organizational culture usually become acclimatized somewhat unconsciously (arguably, the “true” underlying values).  This reinforces the invisibility of their existence.

Looking at culture this way, one can begin to understand paradoxical organizational behaviors. For example, an organization can encourage its employees to speak, challenge, and inquire freely during an open mic session with the CEO in order to, allegedly, foster respect and cohesion (Level 2), while purposely eliminating anonymously submitted hard-hitting questions to keep the conversation positive and buoy morale (Level 3).  Therefore, employees are rewarded for maintaining appearances with the superficial norms while concurrently practicing other organizational norms.  Once an employee discovers Level 3, it becomes apparent that the organizational values (Level 2) are hogwash.  

Clashes between Levels 2 & 3 explain how a significant portion of the learning curve for an experienced professional to enter an organization requires several months of assimilation (e.g. 18-24 months).  For newcomers to be successful within an organization, it is imperative that s/he be provided with on-gong cultural mentoring.  If this does not occur, the threatening conditions inherent in the dynamics of interpersonal relationships (i.e. office politics) and those social conditions embedded within the organizational culture (e.g. see chimp story above), will render the efforts organizational change agents make to institute any desired change futile. 

Authenticity, Accountability, Respect, Transparency are merely buzzwords &/or leadership rhetoric until you do one thing…

Avoid monkey business.


Thank you.

Rossina Gil, MSOD (Theta Primate), MAIS, is a Leadership and Organization Development Practitioner, author, cultural analyst, coach, speaker, and facilitator.  She was born in the Chinese Year of the Monkey.



Kelly, Karen; P.S. Nice Companies Finish First.  New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press LLC, 2013.

Schein, Edgar H. (November 1996). Career anchors revisited: Implications for career development in the 21st century. The Academy of Management Executive.

©Rossina Gil, 2013



About Rossina

Thought Partner & Corporate Primatologist

Posted on November 24, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Rossina, I liked it.


  2. Adam Cash, PsyD: “In a classic episode of the Twilight Zone, everyone gets plastic surgery when they reach adolescence, and everyone picks the same transformation so that everyone looks the same, Ken for the men and Barbie for the women. One girl decides to keep her natural look and is subsequently tormented and ridiculed for wanting to do so. She was under enormous pressure to conform, to give into group pressure, and to go along.” (Click here to see this episode:

    “Groups exert all kinds of pressure on their individual members. Sometimes groups have explicit rules that keep people in line. Other times the rules or pressures are subtle.”

  1. Pingback: Changing organizational culture -- Assess your assumptions | The Writings of Eryc Eyl

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