The way things are done around here
In the late fifties and early sixties, psychologist Harry Harlow at the University of Wisconsin – Madison conducted a series of experiments with rhesus monkeys that would, today, be considered very cruel. One of those studies involved bananas, a step ladder and rules that weren’t written down. Most of the jobs I’ve had have involved usually two of those three things at any given time.
Five monkeys in an enclosure were gifted a step ladder and from the ceiling Harlow suspended a banana from a rope just high enough that it could be seen by the monkeys but not reached without the aid of the stepladder. Soon enough, the sharpest monkey ascended the ladder. The moment it did so, all the monkeys were blasted with freezing water from a high-pressure hose. (This, by the way, was not even close to being the cruellest experiment he conducted.)
If, at any stage, any monkey ascended the ladder, once again, every monkey got waterblasted. Quickly, the group’s behaviour established a pattern. If any individual monkey looked like they were going to ascend the ladder, the other monkeys beat him into submission.
They replaced one of the five monkeys with a new monkey who had not been party to the waterblasting nor had it witnessed it. The newbie saw the banana and did the logical thing – ascend the ladder – or at least it tried to before it was beaten by the other monkeys. Gradually the original monkeys were, one at a time, replaced by new monkeys oblivious to the unwritten rules of the group or the original negative reinforcement of the waterblasting. Each of these new monkeys participated in the beatings and none ever again attempted to ascend the ladder. This continued even when there were no original monkeys left.
Cruelty aside and before you dismiss the relevance of this to us humans, how many times have you experienced unwritten rules, or even written ones, where the people involved have no idea why things are done this way?
I worked my way through university the first time at a building supply warehouse. I got the job via a student job search subsidy. I wasn’t aware of it at the time but the other storeman had been highly opposed to working with “some bloody snooping student.” I started to a chilly reception and job one on day one was to clear out the top level on a storage rack that hadn’t been looked at in a long time. I can’t say for certain but I’m quietly confident asbestos was the least of my problems.
Being young and stupid (though I’m not young anymore), I finished with a few minutes left in the day and went in search of the guys to see if there was anything else I could do to help. I found them loading sheets from out the back onto a small pickup truck. They stopped what they were doing the moment I walked into the back storeroom in the way that everyone in the saloon in a cowboy movie always stops when the new guy in town walks in. They stared. I couldn’t quite work out why. I jumped up on the truck and helped them load. They carried on.
The next day I got a much warmer welcome and a much less crappy set of tasks. Some years later I worked out why. I had walked in on them stealing and unknowingly helped them to do so accomplice-style, thus gaining acceptance to the group. As it turned out, they weren’t really stealing. What they were taking were packing sheets. These were the top and bottom sheets from packs of wallboard often damaged and used as protection for the good sheets from the tight strapping used. To the untrained eye, they looked fine but weren’t really saleable. It was just the way things were done. The storemen went through the pretence of ‘stealing’ the sheets, even though management didn’t want the sheets. Their view was that they were removing the trash.
All this was known by the original storemen but not by the current crew who did the things they did because that was the way things were done around here.
We also sold stepladders. But not bananas.
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